NREL Strategy Keeps Us Engaging with Meaningful Collaborators
By Bill Farris, NREL Associate Laboratory Director for Innovation, Partnering, & Outreach
As one of 17 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) provides direct support to numerous DOE initiatives, while also leading the national laboratory system in market-facing activities to commercialize technologies and partner with government, academia, and industry. These partnerships will help move the energy needle in a way that our planet is demanding, and the foundation for increased partnership activity has been carefully built over the past several years.
More than 12 years ago, NREL’s partnership outreach efforts accelerated with the start of our current management contract with the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC (Alliance). Since then, the laboratory has generated partnership projects totaling more than $1 billion in research and development contract value.
That’s right: $1 billion. And this past fiscal year, NREL delivered a single-year milestone, booking $102 million in new partnership agreements, and that activity continues to grow.
These aren’t just numbers. Rather, their impacts can be measured in many ways. In 2016, 119 full-time NREL employees were dedicated to technical partnership program projects, and by FY 2021, the number had grown to over 200 employees. The future is also bright. To complete the scheduled partnership work, NREL will expand dedicated staff to an estimated 300 full-time employees. Beyond the additional jobs created, the notable outcomes are numerous, and in many cases these projects will quickly translate to tangible market impacts.
NREL’s purpose is to explore and develop research opportunities that improve and advance energy solutions for all. From the time we were founded in 1977, NREL has shown that acting as a convenor and collaborator to achieve multiplier impacts across the energy landscape is part of our DNA.
Simply put, we know that we can do much more together than on our own, and we are steadfast in constantly finding new mechanisms and systems to make meaningful partnerships and collaborations happen.
The list of our partnerships is impressive — and growing. That list includes Eaton, Shell, and ExxonMobil, in addition to clean-tech startup accelerators such as the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator, or IN2, and the Shell GameChanger AcceleratorTM Powered by NREL. Today, NREL boasts some 900 active partnership agreements, including small and large businesses; nonprofits and educational institutions; as well as local, state, and federal government agencies.
This collaborative magnetism wasn’t an accident. This accomplishment was the result of dedicated researchers and a deliberate business development program designed around strategically initiated new work. Such initiatives build on what we do better than anyone. By design, our basic research evolves and grows into commercialized innovations that cut energy waste in buildings, provide longer-lasting batteries for electric vehicles, and find avenues to bring offshore wind energy to communities throughout the United States and the world.
And you won’t have to look too hard to see changes wrought by these partnerships.
For example, take the bustling Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), which like many urban transportation hubs is seeking to find ways to handle growing volumes of travelers and traffic. ATHENA (short for Advancing Transportation Hubs’ Efficiency Using Novel Analytics) is a three-year, $5 million study started in 2019 in collaboration DFW. The initiative is exploring challenges in the transportation sector. By modeling and analyzing actual DFW data, NREL and partners will help the airport adopt energy-efficient technologies and emerging mobility systems while maintaining sustainability and environmental goals. The analysis may help us find new approaches to ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft.
The ultimate beneficiaries are travelers — families visiting loved ones, businesspeople making connections, and tourists exploring new territory.
So too could residents of the Big Apple discover a more fluid transportation system with a big assist from NREL. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and NREL signed a master agreement in 2020 that leverages our laboratory’s many cross-cutting capabilities.
We will help New York state, which has set a goal to have 850,000 zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025. However, at present, the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs) in New York City is insufficient. One of the tools New York City planners rely upon to develop estimates for charging demand is EVI-Pro Lite, an NREL-developed tool. NREL has joined with the city to deploy the full, in-house version of EVI-Pro to refine those demand estimates — and usher in a new era of mobility. Together, we will try to understand the potential for electrification of light-duty vehicles and more.
On and on these impactful projects go. From the remote reaches of Alaska to the storm-lashed shores of the East Coast, NREL and collaborators are finding ways to keep lights on, communities moving, and industries thriving with the most advanced renewable energy technologies.
Our country, and the world, needs NREL and its expertise as never before. And if we’re doing good stuff today and growing bigger tomorrow, it means we’re doing more and having more of an impact alongside our partners.