The NREL Foundation Offers a Boost to Our Renewable Energy Mission

By National Renewable Energy Laboratory Director Martin Keller

Our nation and the world are facing extremely complicated problems due to the impacts of climate change. No one institution can tackle them alone. Indeed, as President Biden made clear during a recent visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), it is all hands on deck. Time is increasingly short.

This is one reason the NREL Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization, was launched this year in association with NREL and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). NREL now has a new partner that can work with us on advancing our mission through philanthropic funding models. This was something NREL could not do before.

For several years, we have been studying this option. NREL is following the example of three other national laboratories that created lab-associated foundations. Others are looking to establish foundations at their respective labs. All are interested in the concept because such foundations have increasing access to private sector, philanthropic funding. They bring flexibility to conduct mission-related programs using new mechanisms.

This entity will provide new sources of capital to fund research and development activities as well such as technology incubation. The key is that the foundation can leverage non-federal funds. Further, the foundation will create additional scholarships and work with organizations outside to laboratory to create more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) as well as diversity and inclusion opportunities.

We think it will be extremely beneficial in the long run that the foundation exists. And the timing is perfect. Simply put, I think this will be a gateway to fresh connections that will allow us to achieve a greater impact on our mission.

While NREL has been well supported and has many active partnerships, we feel that the NREL Foundation fills the gap in the current advanced energy, cleantech ecosystem by serving as a force multiplier for NREL’s mission. Our Business Development team will work closely with the foundation to coordinate engagement with philanthropic donors and other current NREL partners.

For example, across our mission space — including sustainable transportation, energy efficiency, renewable power generation, and energy systems integration — we can aggregate funding in the form of grants from disparate sources to support programs that are significant to NREL and DOE.

Potential funders for the NREL Foundation will range from high-net-worth individuals, family offices, other foundations, and corporate sponsors to individuals and crowd-sourcing campaigns. If NREL staff are so inclined, donations can be made directly to the NREL Foundation or as part of the NREL’s Charitable Giving Campaign.

This isn’t an open checkbook, though, and we will be strategic, targeting areas that align with our mission.

The initial pool of funds donated to the 501(c)(3) will provide additional sources to finance research and development efforts at NREL. A committee will consider applications for the funds, and the foundation will enter into research agreements with NREL. Of course, the projects will go through the normal review and approval process with DOE.

And it won’t just benefit us at the laboratory or our many partners in industry, academia, or other branches of government. The NREL Foundation’s mission will also be to provide funds for STEM projects for students and teachers from kindergarten through high school and for scholarships and internships for undergraduate and graduate students. The potential long-range gains are enormous as we fortify the pipeline for future scientists and engineers from diverse communities.

We have always been proud of the world-class research at NREL. Now, we are excited that the foundation will better connect the philanthropic ecosystem to the cutting-edge research capabilities of NREL. This is a win-win.

We have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us. But with additional avenues of funding and support, we can keep making greater strides to make renewable energy more affordable and reliable.

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