Of all the federal research labs in Colorado, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) is considered to be the crown jewel. NREL is a one-of-a-kind lab that does research pushing the frontiers of renewable energy technologies. Most of the other federal energy labs around the country are legacies of the nuclear era and continue to have some kind of mission in that area. NREL is the only facility in the Department of Energy’s portfolio that does not deal with nuclear energy in some way, and it is the only unit that focuses on promoting solar, wind, biomass, and other renewable energy technologies.
I confess I was not quite prepared for the welcome that I received as I entered the site. My Beloved Husband was enchanted that my name was up in lights as a visiting dignitary, and I did my best to take it in stride. This small town girl will never be anything by wowed by that sort of treatment. Parking under the solar array that provides energy for electric vehicle charging stations gave us a good indication that this facility would be way out in front of any group we had ever encountered dealing with energy.
After a two-on-two presentation that was an overview of NREL, we started with a tour of the office building we were in. Not only does NREL do research on how to improve renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, and biofuel, they also have a group dedicated to improving building energy efficiency. Thus all of the buildings are designed not only to maximize energy efficiency but also to test out new technologies. The building we were in was a LEED platinum level building that was something like 50-70% more efficient than standard building codes. All of the buildings are sited with their long axes east-to-west so that they can take advantage of passive solar energy along their long north and south walls. The south-facing windows are all shielded with some sort of bonnet or giant blinds to bounce the natural light inside while keeping the summer heat out. I especially liked the electrochromic windows, whose tinting could be altered at the push of a button. It had snowed the day before our visit, but I could still envision having meetings out on the shaded balconies at the ends of each floor.
Air flow was also taken seriously. The roofs were angled up so that heat can rise and escape out the upper windows. Printers and copiers are tucked away in their own room so that the sound and the smell wouldn’t affect people, as well as because when people must get up to go get their output, they think twice about printing, thus saving paper and energy. The ventilation systems don’t actually produce any sound, but there was a white noise system that could be adjusted to increase the background noise to mute conversations more effectively. There were also “huddle rooms” for small meetings, phone rooms for private conversations, and quiet rooms for people to take health-related breaks (such as for migraines) or for nursing mothers to pump milk.
When we proceeded on to the building housing the biofuel research, we also learned about how much the facility looks to the future. Because they had several shovel-ready projects, they were able to take advantage of stimulus funds, which has allowed them to consolidate various groups from leased space elsewhere to a single campus. When those buildings were planned, they were designed with expansion in mind so that equipment can be added if new projects are authorized. Indeed, the whole facility has been mapped out so that the sites of future buildings have already been designated. Because the whole campus has been planned with great foresight, those buildings will take advantage of the same infrastructure, the same east-west siting, and will be able to hook seamlessly into the existing buildings.
The Biofuels facility seemed to be either a plumber’s dream or a plumber’s nightmare. My BH has had some experience with industrial-level installations, but this was the first time I had seen a reactor system that was actually about three floors high with a process on one floor feeding down to the next reactor a floor below.
One of NREL’s strengths is they serve as a business incubator, and they encourage collaborative work. Thus a business can use their facility to create or test a new technology or businesses can license technology that has been created at NREL. I liked that their mission focused so much on different ways of sharing information and ideas.
All of the wind technology is focused at a different location about 15 miles away, so my favorite part was the solar research. Outside one building was a veritable sun garden of photovoltaic (solar) arrays, which are being tested and monitored. I don’t think I had appreciated the different varieties of arrays since I usually see the typical blue-celled silicon panels, but there are also black panels of a different formulation, and there are advances in concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) to get more of the sun’s energy converted into usable electricity.
Inside the solar labs are numerous high tech pieces of equipment for fabricating and testing solar cell technologies. I especially liked the “pods,” which were portable carts whose heights could be adjusted to dock with various instruments. Many of the technologies get built under an inert atmosphere to prevent contamination, and the pods allow those cells to be moved around and measured without exposing them to the atmosphere. As a veteran use of glove boxes, which are common equipment in chemistry labs to handle samples away from air, I especially enjoyed the four glove boxes that were all linked together and had a little airless train to transport samples from one to another. My BH was particularly enchanted that in among all of this advanced technology, there were still indications that some properties of scientists are universal. Attached to a large gas cylinder feeding one complex system was a hand-lettered sign stating, “MY Helium! Do not take!” I could sympathize with the sentiment!
It was truly inspiring to look at what technologies are on the horizon. My BH observed as well that every person we encountered seemed to be happy and to love his or her job. I can definitely see how exciting it would be to come to that facility each day and work to make our energy future more secure, more economical, and more environmentally friendly.