Using an Energy Compass: NREL’s 10-Year Vision To Meet Future Needs

By National Renewable Energy Laboratory Director Martin Keller

During the 1980s, when military service was mandatory in Germany, I trained as part of an elite mountain brigade in the Alps. I learned some very valuable lessons.

Once, I and another alpine veteran got stuck on a ridge after misreading a map and had to navigate to safety as an avalanche roared by. Another time, I stopped and took my helmet off while descending a mountain with a visiting officer. Suddenly a large boulder came bouncing down. I saw it and pressed against the cliff as the rock narrowly missed me, striking the officer’s helmet and fracturing his skull. He survived, but I wouldn’t have.

Experiences such as these taught me the importance of knowing where you’re going — and being aware of shifting conditions. I became much better with maps and compasses.

As we look around, we see our world is changing and demanding more efficient and resilient energy solutions. Just as automobiles rapidly replaced horse-drawn buggies more than a century ago, the energy landscape around us is transforming quickly. We are aware of megatrends affecting us. Populations will grow, and more people will migrate to urban areas. World economics will be more electrified and subject to greater cyberthreats. Competition will be fierce for scarce resources. The demand these developments place on the world’s energy sources will increase along with them.

Such new challenges require new solutions.

That is why the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has outlined a 10-year vision to begin addressing those needs today to secure our energy future. Through our strategic planning efforts, we’ve recognized emerging trends and challenges for our nation and the world– and also developed a long-term vision to address the challenges that NREL is best-positioned to impact.

We are focusing on three critical research areas that we call “Integrated Energy Pathways,” “Electrons to Molecules,” and “Circular Economy for Energy Materials.” These three primary areas of opportunity strongly leverage our existing research and development activities but also call on us to expand on and create new capabilities.

· Integrated Energy Pathways is looking at the future grid and how we can incorporate more renewables, energy storage, smart loads, and many more devices that need to work together as a coordinated system. Tomorrow’s grid will be too complex to operate reliably with today’s technologies. This research area will provide innovations to modernize our grid to support a broad selection of generation types, active participation by the consumer, and expand our options for transportation electrification. After all, our electric grid was built for century-old needs, not the needs of tomorrow’s emerging system.

· Our Electrons to Molecules research is exploring the use of renewable, affordable electricity as the driving force for the conversion of low-energy molecules — such as water and carbon dioxide (CO2) — to generate higher-value, higher-energy chemicals, fuels, and materials. Through this research, NREL and its partners are working together to determine the most efficient and cost-effective solutions for energy storage as well as safer ways to create chemicals and plastics that do not rely solely on fossil fuels.

· And, finally, in a world of increased material shortages, our Circular Economy for Energy Materials research will seek new concepts, approaches, and understanding for recovery and recycle, materials substitution, device/system design, and advanced manufacturing processes. We simply cannot sustain the way we are using materials now. That’s why NREL is dedicating resources to research that will underpin a circular economy — designing materials with reducing, reusing, and upcycling in mind for energy-relevant and energy-intensive materials, processes, and technologies. This effort will help mitigate supply issues, promote upcycling, reduce waste, and add value to end-of-life products.

We aren’t traveling this route alone. We’ll also continue to identify emerging opportunities as well as stimulate productive conversations and collaborations to expand understanding and investment in NREL’s future.

Just as I relied on my mountaineering skills — and eyesight — to respond to new changes, NREL’s vision lays the foundation for scientific research and technological innovation to shape a highly efficient and resilient energy future. I like to think I’ve gotten much better at map reading. In a broader sense, I’ve transferred that to NREL’s leadership team. I believe that NREL’s vision informs the laboratory’s research roadmap and also serves as a guide for others wanting to collaborate and innovate toward similar goals.

Energy challenges are coming at us — just as boulders can come ricocheting down mountainsides. We must be smart and nimble to deal them. As you can tell, I’m a strong believer in having great maps, advanced compass skills, and determination.

That’s how I regard NREL’s strategic vision — a new superhighway to the future, designed to keep us at the forefront of the demands that the future will throw at us all.

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