Economy

NREL, The Mega Colorado Lab Leading Renewable Energy Revolution

On the dusty, deserted plains of Colorado, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) works with researchers and the world's top companies to create the consumer economy of the future, which will be much more environmentally conscious.

A wind turbine more than 260 feet above the ground at NREL
A wind turbine more than 260 feet above the ground at NREL
US Dept of Energy
Elsa Conesa

GOLDEN â€" Those who have read The Adventures of Tintin comic book series might think for a second that they've just landed at the Atomic Research Center of Sbrodj, the fictional city, where Professor Calculus secretly built the rocket that would take the characters to the Moon. But this is certainly not Tintin territory. We are in the heart of Colorado, where the great arid plains give way to the Rocky Mountains.

A handful of chrome-plated buildings, covered with solar panels, seem to have emerged from the earth right in the middle of the desert. An isolated road surrounds the site. The closest town, Golden, is a tiny one that owes its name to a gold digger and its fame to the presence of Buffalo Bill's grave.

This place might be in the middle of nowhere, but it's no mirage. It's the home of the massive U.S. research lab dedicated to renewable energies, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). With an annual budget over $400 million, more than 1,500 people work here, along with 800 guest researchers. They are working on projects more concrete than we can imagine: a hydrogen-powered car that draws its fuel from the surrounding air, clean buildings, solar panels of the future, low-energy supermarkets, smart homes, and more. The consumer society of the future is being invented here.

Beneath its science fiction aesthetic, the site contains all sorts of surprising and fun installations. For example, there's a racetrack to test electric vehicles, a station to refill the hydrogen tank and a state-of-the-art kitchen with smart appliances.

Main frame redux

NREL's latest acquisition is a supercomputer that's every bit as good as those over at Google or the other Silicon Valley giants. Peregrine â€" that's its name â€" can perform billions of operations per second. "Its processors are equivalent to more than 15,500 laptops," explains a proud James Bosch, the laboratory's spokesman.

The data that emerge from it are then modeled in 3D videos. The show it offers is just as good as the best Hollywood productions. With glasses on, viewers can literally step into the flow of air produced by a wind turbine, represented on the screen by a long white tunnel with no end.

The site wasn't designed by Elon Musk, but it could easily pass for a gigantic fair ride, and its futuristic equipment aren't the sole attributes. Entirely rebuilt in 2009, the laboratory has become "net zero," meaning it emits no carbon dioxide. It was a real challenge that cost the U.S. Energy Department close to $100 million at a time when the financial crisis was forcing the federal government to cut its spending.

That partly explains the strange architecture, consisting of long buildings designed to receive as much sunlight as possible. A system of shutters installed inside the windows redirects the light to the roof before spreading it evenly. Colorado's extreme temperatures are regulated via an automated window-opening system, and some of the windows are covered with a film that becomes darker when the temperature rises. And since the laboratory acquired its supercomputer, the water system used to cool it down is also used to heat the building.

No carbon, energy efficient

Inside too, the design was developed to make installations as energy efficient as possible. All partitions have been removed to allow the air, the light and the heat to circulate. "Each work station consumes 70 kiloWatt hours here," says Chuck Kutscher, head of architectural research. "The average in a traditional office is 400."

Even the phones are low-consumption. Employees have had to adapt: no more mini-fridges, microwaves or extra heating. Its a showcase for the laboratory, which is hoping to develop its findings in future building and urban projects across the country. With its help, the city of Denver has set about creating a whole new "net zero" neighborhood.

"Cities are responsible for 70% of emissions, and more than 80% of North America is urbanized," Kutscher says. "Our experience must be applicable."

Of the Energy Department's 17 national laboratories, this one that has the strongest ties to industries and private companies, so much so that it's been criticized for it. NREL is mostly financed by public funds, but more than half of its partnerships are with start-ups, small- and medium-size businesses. "We work with the private sector in a structural way," James Bosch explains. "We have to be in touch with the market. Our objective is to suppress the roadblocks in the way of renewable energies developing in the market."

This system works both ways. Companies come to use the laboratories' capacities and resources to develop and test their products with their teams and NREL. And, similarly, the laboratory gets the private sector involved whenever it can, to help monetize its findings as much as possible.

"NREL's frame of mind is very much American," says Omar-Pierre Soubra, president of the French American Chamber of Commerce in Denver, which introduces french start-ups to the laboratory every year. "It's always trying to create solutions. All of its discoveries are patented so they can later be placed on the market with a private-sector partner, either through a spin-off or a contract. It actually has a department just for that, to commercialize their patents and permits.”

The only constraint is that all works must eventually be published. "We can delay the publication if the company asks us to," Bosch says. "But transparency remains our goal."

Public-private partnerships

There's no shortage of collaborative examples. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, among others, have worked with the laboratory on the development of their hybrid cars. This is also where Toyota carried out research on its fuel cell. The world leader on solar panels, First Solar, also teamed with the laboratory to develop a fabrication process for more efficient and cheaper thin-film solar cells. Finally, German manufacturer Bosch has just settled in one of the artificial kitchens to test the energy consumption and the resistance of its washing machines and refrigerators, as well as their integration in the electrical grid.

What experts call the "dynamic management" of electrical grids is indeed one of the research center's specialties. And it's one of the fields of daily life that could evolve the furthest in the next 20 years, thanks to new technology. "In the future, more and more houses will produce their own energy, with the sun or the wind or batteries, and electrical grids will be more decentralized," explains Dane Christensen, who manages NREL's Residential Systems Innovation and Performance department.

In that context, new technologies and connected objects will allow, for example, a fridge to temporarily raise its temperature by one degree to free up energy for the oven. Or to set up a washing machine to initiate the program when the wind starts to blow again. "We can imagine that eventually smart meters will be able to manage these variations without human interaction" â€" for example, by checking out an online weather forecast, Christensen says. Behind him, a distribution board with sensor-equipped fuses can measure the energy consumption of each kitchen appliance in real time.

Both energy providers and manufacturers are interested in this topic. And it's all the more crucial given the changing quality of electrical infrastructures depending on which U.S. state you're in, with their dilapidation causing recurring security issues. "The U.S. is among the most innovative countries on these subjects, and the NREL's works are among the best in the country,” says Tristan Grimbert, CEO of EDF Énergies Nouvelles in North America, which also works with the laboratory.

NREL's model is unique, even in the United States. For the laboratory, the goal isn't just to help companies and promote clean energies, but also to justify its own existence in a country where the use of public funds is always the source of controversy. Since its creation in the early 1970s, its financial resources have remained largely irregular, growing or diminishing with the changing of governments and oil prices. In the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan's presidency, most of its funding was cut. And the laboratory was forced to lay off about 30 people in the mid 2000s.

Like all great American public entities, NREL must demonstrate its usefulness every day. The value it creates in terms of the economy is the subject of a specific yearly report. "Public funds used for partnerships with private companies have led to a five-fold increase in private investments," the laboratory’s brochure says proudly.

The COP-21 climate change conference and President Barack Obama's recent commitments should give NREL some visibility. But there is another new factor that people here are trying to measure: the impact of cheap oil on clean energy innovation.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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