Adding an Alaska Housing Research Center Furthers Our Lab’s Reach

By Martin Keller, Director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is heading “north to the future.”

On June 8, 18 researchers and staff from the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) in Fairbanks, Alaska, became part of NREL. CCHRC is now a center in our Mechanical and Thermal Engineering Sciences Directorate. Under terms approved by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the new NRELians will remain at CCHRC facilities in Fairbanks as a new regional office of the laboratory.

I believe our two cultures are a perfect fit because we share core values.

NREL’s long-standing objective is to advance the science and engineering of energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, and renewable power technologies as well as to provide the knowledge to integrate and optimize energy systems. Quite simply, we see our mission as helping to save the planet — and are exclusively devoted to research into renewable energy technologies including wind power, solar energy, and building efficiency.

CCHRC is an industry-based, nonprofit corporation founded in 1999 to seek cost-effective building technologies for people living in circumpolar regions around the globe. They are renowned for the study of materials and techniques needed to build energy-efficient, durable, and healthy structures that can sustain extreme weather conditions. The team has built sustainable prototype houses, developed innovative renewable energy systems, and produced educational publications, to name a few highlights.

We already collaborate, and this new phase will enable us to mutually draw upon our shared passions in more impactful ways.

Combining our strengths through alliances such as this allows NREL to accomplish more than what we would have achieved separately. It is a model we have utilized repeatedly with great success with existing partners including Wells Fargo, Eaton, ExxonMobil, Shell, and hundreds of others.

One thing I like about CCHRC is that it is a very reality-based organization. Adaptation is something they live with, especially when temperatures plunge to 50 degrees below zero in winter, then soar to the 80s in the summer.

CCHRC has deep ties to industry as well as to Alaska’s rural communities and shares research and dialogue with builders, contractors, and policymakers. This can only enhance our already strong connections in the region.

We’ve been exploring possibilities with CCHRC for a while.

In October 2019, I was in Fairbanks to meet with U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski and to sign a memorandum of understanding for NREL to collaborate with CCHRC. While there, I was really impressed with founder and CEO Jack Hébert as well as with the vitality of the entire staff. From that point, things evolved, we had discussions, and our visions merged.

In February, I, along with other members of NREL’s leadership and buildings research teams, welcomed CCHRC members to Colorado for a visit. They were as excited about our capabilities as we were about their abilities. We could see real possibilities. With DOE support, we struck a deal that I believe enriches both parties.

The buildings research areas of both organizations align with NREL’s 10-year strategy and focus on enabling the efficient and reliable operation of our future energy system.

Now, as we chart a new path, we have CCHRC’s pioneering talents to draw upon — and they have our backing. The bridge will quickly shrink the 3,000-mile distance between Colorado and Fairbanks, Alaska.

I can hardly wait for this new chapter and see only expansion on the horizon. North to Alaska we go.

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