NREL and Cold Climate Housing Research Center Mark Impactful One-Year Anniversary

By National Renewable Energy Laboratory Director Martin Keller

Last June, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) added the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) staff in Fairbanks, Alaska, to our team. The Alaskan institution brought 20 years of unrivaled experience in extreme-climate sustainable housing to our partnership as well as to the U.S. Department of Energy.

We were excited because our new partners incorporate the wisdom of First Alaskans, which draws from thousands of years of tradition. And now, with 21 of their staff closely collaborating with NREL researchers for the past year, we are even more pleased.

Just like NREL, CCHRC operates as a “living laboratory,” with a campus that includes their LEED Platinum-certified Research and Testing Facility. And CCHRC’s mission of “promoting and advancing the development of healthy, durable, and sustainable shelter for Alaskans and other Circumpolar people” is complementary to NREL’s research priorities.

What CCHRC, and now NREL researchers, are doing together is having real world impact. People who have lived in crowded, unhealthy housing are getting the opportunity to have better lives. Together, we are grappling with issues such as the complex nexus of water, energy, and climate change in a holistic approach. All of these topics are right in NREL’s wheelhouse — and CCHRC is a thought leader on many fronts.

CCHRC has been developing an “Arctic Strategy,” consulting with Arctic voices to compile energy priorities. As Arctic Strategic Program Manager Sherry Stout said, the approach “isn’t about observing climate change from the outside. Alaskans and northern people are living the climate transition. The goal of the Arctic Strategy is to help Arctic peoples meet their energy and housing goals in this changing environment and do it in a way that minimizes the climate impacts to traditional ways of life.”

Partners on the Forefront of Change

Because subarctic residents are at the forefront of climate change, our partnership will give us even more timely insights into the problems that will overtake the world.

Our inaugural year saw several notable collaborations, including a project to create affordable prefabricated housing, advice on improvements to military housing, and construction of demonstration homes in marginalized communities.

For example this July, CCHRC building researchers will load a 20-foot shipping container outfitted with a kitchen, bathroom, and mechanical room onto a barge headed for Unalakleet, a largely Inupiaq village perched on the Bering Sea. After a three-week journey around the long tail of the Aleutian Islands and up Alaska’s western coast, crews will hoist the fully plumbed container from the barge with a boom truck, drag it down a series of gravel roads etched into the tundra, and place it inside a newly framed home.

This home will provide healthy, modern amenities for a family that has spent many years in overcrowded conditions. Further, combining prefabricated components such as the kitchen-bathroom container with site-built components could begin to address the shortage of affordable housing in Alaska.

Additionally, CCHRC is advising military planners on retrofit strategies that would improve efficiency without compromising indoor air quality. Reducing energy costs not only frees up money for mission-critical work but also improves quality of life for U.S. servicemen and servicewomen in cold climates.

Even as NREL laboratories build technology for the future, social scientists are studying the impact of culture on these technologies. CCHRC is currently looking at community attitudes toward past building designs in rural Alaska, such as modular buildings that cropped up in villages and oil camps in the 1960s and 70s. Working hand in hand with communities and designers, we are learning from the past to make sure new building and energy systems emphasize local traditions, resources, and workforces.

NREL is always changing — hopefully, for the better. When we grow, it is not to inflate numbers but to create new avenues to save the world. A lot of people are looking at us during this critical time. So, it stands to reason that we embrace the top researchers, attracting people with varied experience.

In blending with CCHRC, we have done exactly that.

So, here’s to our first year. I’d like to say that “the sky’s the limit” for this partnership. Yet when I consider the northern lights that appear in Interior Alaska, I realize that’s not true. I should say instead that the aurora borealis is the limit — because we all know that, actually, such a phenomenon is limitless.

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