Celebrating 45 Years of NREL Is Only a Start for Renewable Energy

By Martin Keller, National Renewable Energy Laboratory Director

In the grand scheme of things, 45 years doesn’t seem like a very long time. Most people, if they celebrate their 45th birthdays at all, tend to skip the fanfare. It’s not exactly a milestone — no need to cue the trumpets.

But at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, it’s different. We think our 45th anniversary is a big deal.

Why?

After years of planning and discussion — as well as experiencing the national shock of the oil embargo in 1973 — DOE opened the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) officially in Golden, Colorado, on July 5, 1977. I say “officially” because some researchers and support staff had spent months trying to transform empty office space with wires dangling from the ceiling, no file cabinets, and no reams of copy paper into a cohesive organization.

Truly, SERI was a startup. Those early researchers and leaders had a vision, but the path forward wasn’t clear.

Realistically, there was no viable photovoltaic industry. There wasn’t any commercial wind industry, either — although California and some scattered areas across the globe were experimenting with wind turbines. Still, in those early days, the novel machines often ended up on the ground in pieces or with blades flying loose during big wind gusts. Similarly, there were no hybrid electric or electric vehicles in the marketplace or widespread use of biofuels.

Then along came SERI. Obviously, there were collaborations with other national laboratories, industry, and academic partners.

Still, in our 40-plus-year lifespan, our fingerprints are all over renewable energy advances. Our wind researchers helped design blades that allowed expansion of turbine hub heights. Gearbox experts figured out ways to increase the longevity of turbines, while others pioneered configurations of wind farms for more efficiency. And despite being landlocked, NREL has contributed to the advancement of offshore wind turbines and water power.

Materials science experts created new PV combinations, constantly increasing the yields for solar devices. Others researched better ways to ensure solar panels would withstand punishing conditions, allowing wider adoption of solar energy.

Our campus has been home to many prototypes, from EVs to hydrogen powered cars. Autonomous vehicles have rolled around our Golden campus as part of an examination of intelligent transportation.

We designed and built new types of buildings, incorporating everything from passive solar walls to transpired cooling systems drilled into the panels of our own Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum, zero-energy, and high-performance Research Support Facility. And NREL’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Alaska is finding new ways to ensure that energy technology design is deployed in extreme and rural environments.

And our analysts have created studies that have allowed local and national governments and agencies to adopt best practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and embrace high efficiency standards. Our experts provided rigorous, integrated engineering-economic analysis to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power through the Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study (LA100) to help guide Los Angeles in meeting its goal of using reliable, 100% renewable electricity by 2045 — or even 2035.

The LA100 study is inspiring others. In February, we were part of the announcement of the PR100 Study, a community-driven and locally tailored road map to help Puerto Rico meet its target of 100% renewable electricity, improve power sector resiliency, and increase access to more affordable energy.

Don’t get me wrong. While we are proud of what we’ve accomplished in four-and-a-half decades, we’re not ready to chill out.

Our research labs and analysis groups are going to underpin market impacts that we will see five, 10, and 20 years in the future. And so, while we’ve come a long way in a relatively short time, we’re eager to see what’s next. And I think I speak for every NREL staffer when I say that we’re excited about our ability to change the world.

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From breakthroughs in fundamental science to new clean technologies to integrated energy systems that power our lives, NREL researchers are #TransformingEnergy