The Net Zero Labs Initiative Demonstrates NREL Walking the Talk

By Julie Baker, NREL Assistant Laboratory Director

With national laboratory leaders gathered at NREL’s Flatirons Campus, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm announced the pilot launch of the Net Zero Labs initiative. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

That’s why last month’s announcement at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm regarding the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Net Zero Labs (NZL) pilot project is so important.

NREL — along with Idaho National Laboratory, the National Energy Technology Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory — will create and then demonstrate innovative approaches to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Next year, it is likely that all 17 national laboratories will be part of the program.

Under the NZL initiative, our 305-acre Flatirons Campus near Boulder, Colorado, will reach net-zero emissions annually by the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2023. This campus will be the first campus in the entire DOE complex to reach this milestone.

Additionally, our South Table Mountain (STM) Campus in Golden, Colorado, is positioned to be net-zero emissions annually as well by the end of FY 2026. The road to net zero starts with us now producing 3.6 MW of solar photovoltaic energy on our STM site. That campus is already home to five buildings that have received the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification and two net-zero energy facilities. In short, NREL will eliminate or offset all greenhouse gas emissions to achieve carbon neutrality on an annual basis.

We’ve been working on this plan for a while. To reach our goals:

  • We’ll transition from natural gas for heating. We’ll turn to thermal energy from data center waste heat coupled with a variety of distributed energy sources — including hydrogen fuel cells, batteries, geothermal wells, and solar arrays — to demonstrate an islanded mode of operation. This is a double bonus: Facilities are more resilient while achieving net-zero emissions. NREL will pioneer in providing cutting-edge heating and cooling systems for smart-campus central plants.
  • In particular, our research in hydrogen and fuel cells is decreasing the cost and increasing the scale of technologies to make, store, move, and use hydrogen across multiple energy sectors.

By modeling new ways to produce as much fossil-free energy as we use, we will be setting the standard for the future. Across the country, federal buildings will have new methods to try in their quests to reduce their carbon footprint. Likewise, our findings can serve as a model for other campuses, industries, and communities to become net-zero emitters.

I couldn’t be prouder.

An aerial view of NREL’s South Table Mountain Campus outside Golden, Colorado. Photo by Joshua Bauer, NREL

We already have a strong foundation in this area. Our Intelligent Campus program utilizes our campuses as a living experiment and research instrument to test and validate pioneering technologies. Still, we know there’s no time to waste, no opportunity to miss, to help save the world. Every day counts. There are no laurels to rest on when wildfires burn and storms rage.

We must embrace this decarbonization with all of our ability. We will be looking ahead to NREL’s digital twin developed by the Intelligent Campus group. This is a platform that allows decision-makers to evaluate decarbonization investments and scenarios to optimize emissions, cost, and time savings for achieving net-zero emissions.

This fiscal year, NREL invested in technical assessments from the decarbonization road map including the investigation of a new STM Campus carbon-free heating and cooling district, renewable energy backup power systems, and a procurement opportunity of solar and energy storage through a power purchase agreement.

We have been clear that every new building will be net-zero emissions. For example, facility investments on our new Research and Innovation Laboratory (RAIL), slated for completion later this year, now include electrical infrastructure to support a future microgrid functionality. Additionally, to reduce Scope 2 emissions (indirect greenhouse gas emissions associated with the purchase of electricity), NREL has purchased electricity through the Windsource program.

As we go forward, I know there will be more good news. Along with our three other pilot national laboratories, we intend to expand the options for other organizations across the United States as well as the globe to fight climate change.

We may not have all the answers, but we will never stop looking. That’s our charge at NREL and the national laboratory system.

An aerial view of NREL’s Flatirons Campus near Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Joshua Bauer, NREL



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