What do you think of when you think of a lab? A Google image search shows groups of staid men and women in their starched, white lab coats doing science-y stuff with beakers and vials in sterile rooms. Well, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) takes that idea of a lab and cranks it up to 11.
Plenty of people talk about sustainability. They are doing something about it. This lab is driving the clean energy future I talk about by making it and living it themselves, and thus creating a better planet for all of us.
NREL is the only federal lab dedicated to research, development, commercialization, and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency. The key words in that sentence are commercialization and deployment. They work with industry to bring new technologies to market and they use these same technologies in their highly efficient and visually stunning campus.
I recently toured NREL with a group that included five Ted Scripps fellows from the CU Center for Environmental Journalism. My first impression of NREL’s campus was, “I want to work here.” The lab’s 17 buildings sit on a 327-acre campus that is on the southern slope of one of the two mesas that loom over Golden, CO. Most of the land is an environmental easement, so the buildings are clustered together within walking distance or a short shuttle bus ride of each other. After passing through the security gate, we parked in the covered visitors’ parking lot. Common enough, until we noticed every inch of the three sloped roofs is covered with solar panels. More on those later.
In various presentations we were told about algae biofuels by Dr. Lieve Laurens, energy systems integration by Dr. Jim Cale, and commercialization of cellulosic ethanol by Rich Bolin. Cellulosic ethanol is biofuel produced from trees, grasses, or inedible parts of plants, rather than from corn kernels such as the ethanol in our gasoline now.
Dr. Laurens said NREL’s goal is to use biomass — material from living organisms — to replace all the products obtained from a barrel of oil (gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc.). That level of effort is needed to meet the Renewable Fuels Standard of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, with 21 billion of those gallons coming from so-called “advanced biofuels,” such as that made from algae. Although there are still many issues to be resolved, algae looks promising because its products are more energy dense than cellulosic ethanol.
“The future of energy is integrated systems,” Dr. Cale stated. A limiting factor of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, is they are intermittent. In addition, they can be centralized, such as a wind farm, but they are increasingly produce energy at a local level — the rooftops of houses — and in a decentralized way. Our current electrical distribution system is organized for huge, centralized power plants. So how can we integrate lots of locally produced energy sources in a way that can feed power into a grid from which entire communities can derive energy?
Dr. Cale said the Energy Systems Integration department of the lab is working on a networked architecture to efficiently distribute the energy from these decentralized sources. The architecture is comprised of five layers: physical devices, local controls, communications, systems controls, and the market. The department is partnering with industry to devise ways to coordinate control between the layers. For example, we are seeing the emergence of the “prosumer,” an individual or business that both produces (by wind or solar) and consumes energy. The lab is working with utilities on developing the technology to regulate the voltage coming from prosumers so the power can be transmitted to other users.
Rich Bolin told us about the commercial gains that have been made with cellulosic ethanol, spurred on by President Bush famously declaring “America is addicted to oil” in his 2006 State of the Union speech. A cradle-to-grave analysis of petroleum gasoline, corn ethanol, and cellulosic ethanol showed that corn ethanol reduced greenhouse gas emissions 24% compared to gasoline but cellulosic ethanol reduced the emissions by over 90%. Production costs have dropped from $9.16/gallon in 2001 to $2.15/gallon in 2012. Amazing work, but it still can’t compete with gasoline. Rich said commercial plants are currently producing 100 million gallons per year, much more than I thought. A far cry though from the 16 billion gallons cellulosic ethanol is expected to contribute to the 2022 Renewable Fuel Standard goal. So some progress has been made, but there is still a LONG way to go.
We toured two of the lab’s buildings, the 182,500 square foot Energy Systems Integration Facility, where Dr. Cale works, and the 360,000 square foot Research Support Facility, which houses the lab’s office spaces. They are as stylish as they are energy efficient. The Energy Systems Integration Facility was named 2014 Laboratory of the Year by R&D Magazine. The facility’s 14 labs contain the typical test benches but also commercial appliances, generators, and electric vehicles being tested in conjunction with industry. They also have a futuristic 3D visual modeling bay. Sadly, we didn’t get to see it in action. Just outside the building is Colorado’s only hydrogen fuel cell filling station.
The Research Support Facility is the first office building in the world certified LEED Platinum, according to Heather Lammers from the lab’s Public Affairs Group. Its energy efficiency and sustainable features include rooftop photovoltaics, open ceiling work stations, recycled building materials, and transpired solar collectors. When the building was being designed, the architect proposed adding these sleek, perforated metal panels (aka transpired solar collectors) to the side of the building to heat the air going into the building by up to 40 degrees. The NREL staff thought it was a great suggestion since their lab created the panels. The building design is so efficient that its 885 occupants only require the amount of power produced by renewable energy sources on or near the building.
Now about those solar panels above the parking lot. Using the energy from those panels and others on campus, Dr. Cale said the lab can disconnect from the local utility and temporarily operate as a standalone grid, aka a microgrid. Jim expects microgrids to become more common with the growth of the prosumer, so NREL is very interested in studying them. A goal of the lab is to make the campus net-zero energy and net-zero carbon emissions (see page 7 of this report) within 5 years.
Our group made a caffeine pit stop at one of the lab’s cafes and then we drove out to the National Wind Technology Center, which is part of NREL. The center is positioned between Golden and Boulder adjacent to the former grounds of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapon production facility, which is now a wildlife refuge. This location is ideal for the center’s purpose as turbulent winds coming off the Rockies and down Boulder Canyon can top 100 mph.
The center is an industry testing ground to evaluate wind turbines prototypes and their components. In addition to wind turbines dotting the area, the center has test facilities to check if blades meet safety standards and learn why gearboxes have been failing more often than expected. The technicians there definitely get to have fun. One of the tests they conduct is stressing a blade until it snaps.
Wonder what the future of energy looks like? There are people in Golden, CO who know. They know because they are defining it.