‘Finding creative answers to today’s energy challenges’
Viewpoints: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is focused on transforming the way the nation and the world use energy, writes Bill Farris, associate laboratory director for Innovation, Partnering, and Outreach at NREL.
Fifty years ago, a few visionary Americans hatched an idea to focus on ways to improve our planet’s environmental well-being. It was audacious, but the concept took root and hundreds of thousands participated across the U.S. to mark the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. It was a time of excitement and activism, inspiring many, and the annual event spread globally.
Following his role as national coordinator for the first Earth Day, Denis Hayes would become the second laboratory director of the fledgling Solar Energy Research Institute, or SERI, later that decade. Opened in 1977 by the U.S. Department of Energy in Golden, Colorado, SERI tackled the mission of advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy.
That mission expanded as SERI later became known as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL. Fifty years after celebrating the first Earth Day, we at the lab still connect not only with the event’s first coordinator but also with the spirit of Earth Day. That event is about inclusion and raising awareness — NREL is the same.
At NREL, we focus on finding creative answers to today’s energy challenges. From breakthroughs in new clean technologies to integrated energy systems that power our lives, we are transforming the way the nation and the world use energy. For example, just this month we reached a new solar cell efficiency record of 47.1% with our six-junction solar cell — the most efficient in the world under concentrated light conditions. Because technology breakthroughs like this are an immense challenge and most valuable when they enter the marketplace, we rely on our partners for important collaborations.
First, we ensure that our research and resulting new technologies come to market. Connecting with the private sector is in our DNA and doesn’t happen by accident. It comes about when basic research evolves and grows into innovations that improve houses, buildings, vehicles, and communities throughout the United States and the world. Advances in solar or wind energy, biofuels or hydrogen systems, don’t just sit on shelves and collect dust. They make an impact — and we seek projects with such impact.
We engage partners who are tackling the same energy challenges we face. Today, NREL has nearly 900 active partnership agreements, including small and large businesses; nonprofits and educational institutions; and local, state, and federal governments. For more than 40 years, NREL has engaged in mission-related work with partners ranging from established companies, like Wells Fargo and ExxonMobil, to startups begun by visionaries with their own dreams. Our efforts include administering clean-tech startup accelerators such as the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator, or IN2, and the Shell GameChanger AcceleratorTM Powered by NREL.
While there are many successes of our partnership models, one signature win has been IN2. With funding from Wells Fargo, the program launched in 2014 to facilitate early-stage technologies that provide scalable solutions to reduce the energy impact of commercial buildings. IN2 has since expanded its scope beyond commercial buildings to include energy-saving technologies in agriculture and housing.
To date, approximately $250,000 of technical assistance and project-related support has been awarded to each of 40 different startups. Sometimes participants receive additional follow-on funding or beta demonstration support. Participants have gone on to raise more than $313 million in additional funding outside the program. It is estimated that, for every $1 IN2 invests, its portfolio companies go on to raise more than $28 in external funding. Heady growth indeed.
A particular IN2 success story is PowerFlex, a company whose load-leveling technology reduces the costs and increases the energy efficiency of electric vehicle, or EV, charging. With NREL technical assistance, the startup’s promising technology is on its way to help prevent energy-management issues as more EVs hit the road. In the United States alone, EV volume grew by an average of 32% annually between 2012 and 2016. Globally, EVs are projected to reach 35 million by 2022.
The IN2 program also facilitates demonstration and validation of the funded technologies in real-world environments. PowerFlex’s initial demonstration was at NREL’s Flatirons Campus in Colorado, where NREL installed 16 charging stations managed by the PowerFlex adaptive charging network for use by employees. The company used the resulting data to improve and develop its product. The demonstration was so beneficial for both PowerFlex and NREL that the laboratory decided to purchase the 16 Flatirons Campus chargers plus an additional 108 for its main campus in Golden.
This is one example we’re proud of. There are many more — and as new problems arise, we will seek more partners to help us find solutions.
The Earth Day Network — founded by Hayes in 1971 to carry on Earth Day — has had to alter its 50-year celebration of global events because of the COVID-19 outbreak. This year, Earth Day will be marked by digital events, but as the Earth Day Network notes on its website, the global efforts required to combat the coronavirus will also be needed to ensure success in the ongoing fight against climate issues. In that spirit, NREL and its partners will continue to seek new avenues for renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.