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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 — Those who have read The Adventures of Tintincomic 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 — that's its name — 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" — 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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