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Trump budget threatens national lab in Golden, but NREL advances continue
GOLDEN – The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has 40 years of history behind it, but walking through its sprawling Front Range campus one can’t help but think 40 years into the future.
Solar cells that can be spray-painted onto windows or printed at a Home Depot; power grids that can take in a wide portfolio of traditional and renewable energy and adapt to changing environments; homes with appliances that communicate with each other to share power between electric cars, water heaters, appliances and even neighbors; hydrogen cars that can travel 300 miles with only a three-minute charge.
Researchers at NREL — a national laboratory that celebrates its 40th birthday on July 5 — have been innovating and contributing to the Colorado and national economy through seven presidential administrations, with the reach of their work only growing each year.
But the laboratory’s future is uncertain under President Trump, who has promised to trim government spending, and has identified renewable energy programs as a target.
Times are just as uncertain for other marquee federal labs in Colorado — many of which deal with energy or climate research.
Trump’s budget proposal to Congress would cut the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by an estimated 70 percent in the upcoming fiscal year. The office, which is part of the Department of Energy, provides about 80 percent of NREL’s funding. The other 20 percent of the lab’s income is derived from other federal agencies and partnerships with businesses.
Trump has taken other actions that favor fossil fuels over the renewable energy industry in Colorado. In an executive order signed in March, Trump placed a renewed focus on coal, lifting an Obama-era moratorium on all new leases of federal coal reserves. He also directed the EPA to begin unwinding Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would have closed hundreds of coal-fired power plants and curbed construction of new plants. Trump said the orders were meant to revitalize the coal industry, telling miners at the time, “You’re going back to work.
Coal mining is a $500 million industry in Colorado, producing 12 million tons of coal a year and employing 2,700 people.
Trump’s budget request is of course a moving target, but NREL could face a substantial retrenchment in funding, with one early estimate pegged at 21 percent.
And while a House committee has voted to increase funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy by $500 million above Trump’s request, Congress has yet to approve any funding.
But Keith Wipke, laboratory program manager for hydrogen technologies at NREL. is confident that renewable energy research will remain a vital component of the nation’s energy portfolio.
“The wind and the sun, they’re here, nobody can build a fence and block those things from coming into our country, so there’s a strong sense of independence and how important it is to be doing the right thing and showing leadership,” he said. “That’s what brought me here, and it’s what’s kept me here for the last half of my life.”
Colorado is the seventh-largest energy producing state in the United states, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
A recent report from the administration revealed that about 24 percent of all March electricity production in Colorado came from wind and solar, helping the state reach its renewable energy standard of 30 percent by 2020.
Bipartisan support for NREL
There is bipartisan agreement among the state’s congressional delegation to keep NREL’s innovative work well-funded.
“It’s not easy to overstate the importance,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, whose district includes NREL. “It has allowed us to attract some very smart, talented people, a lot of entrepreneurs, and it has benefited our state so that we have the lowest unemployment anywhere in the country.”
Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, said that he stressed to Energy Secretary Rick Perry before his confirmation hearing that NREL is an important facility. “NREL’s critical work on energy and grid resiliency are critical components to an all-of-the-above energy strategy and helps the United States continue to develop cutting-edge technologies,” Gardner said.
He pointed out that every $1 of taxpayer money invested through the lab results in $5 of private investment.
“I’ll continue to lead the fight in Congress against any draconian cuts to NREL and do everything I can to make sure Colorado’s interests are reflected in a final budget,” Gardner said.
NREL’s economic impact was about $872 million nationwide in 2014, according to the latest fiscal study, which was conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder Leeds School of Business. The study estimates NREL’s impact to Colorado’s economy totaled $701 million.
Jefferson County, where the largest number of NREL employees are located, saw a $275 million economic impact. It is among the 10 largest employers in the county, with more than 1,700 full-time and more than 100 part-time employees.
By contrast, the lab’s projected budget for fiscal 2017 is about $360 million.
Renewable energy budget concerns aren’t just an issue on the national level. Colorado recently served as a microcosm after Republicans and Democrats could not agree on funding the Colorado Energy Office.
The debate started in the full legislature, which failed to approve a bill that would have provided $3.1 million to keep the office funded. Republicans pushed for eliminating certain renewable energy programs, while expanding the Energy Office’s focus to include nuclear and hydropower and giving the oil and gas industry a greater voice.
While the effort to fund the office was bipartisan, not enough Democrats supported the measure, and it died on the last day of the legislative session.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, recently sought to save the office by asking state budget writers to approve supplemental emergency funding. But Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee were uncomfortable approving the supplemental funding without input from the full legislature, which adjourned in May.
Without the money, 24 staff positions stand to be cut.
There are fears that similar political gridlock could sink renewable energy programs and research on the federal level.
A passion for the future
When asked about potential budget cuts, NREL employees don’t appear overly alarmed. Their focus is on the research and development that is bringing the world into the future. After all, they have survived budget cuts in the past.
“If you speak with anybody who has been with NREL very long, they’ll tell you it’s just a matter of survival, getting through different administrations that are supportive of funding, getting through administrations that are not supportive of funding,” said Bill Flecky, vice president of business development for Forge Nano, which has worked with NREL for years.
NREL made a deal with Colorado-based Forge Nano to commercialize NREL’s patented battery materials and systems capable of operating safely in high-stress environments.
“The premise of NREL is we’re not here to compete with the private sector, we’re here to help overcome research and development hurdles and challenges quickly and efficiently,” said Martha Symko-Davies, director of partnerships for the Energy Systems Integration Facility.
Symko-Davies has been at NREL for nearly 20 years.
The Energy Systems Integration Facility is working on how to think about power systems in a wholistic way, such as how water, thermal, solar, hydrogen, and traditional fuels work together in an integrated grid.
“It’s integrating these different technologies and optimizing them so that if you do have a design that you’ve come up with and you have an energy tool that guided you into its design, we have all the infrastructure here with the 16 labs to be able to validate (the project),” Symko-Davies said.
The facility is examining what a community of 3,000 homes that share a power grid would look like and how that would impact utility companies.
For the consumer, the research at NREL means moving from a manual world to an automated one, with new products coming online every day.
But before there can be new products, power grids need to keep up with demand. If renewable energy is part of the portfolio, then those grids need to be able to adapt to days without much sun, wind or other alternative energy sources. A supercomputer at the lab runs models and scenarios to change input and outtake based on the ever-changing environment.
A focus on the consumer
In one of the labs in the facility, researchers are creating smart homes that are maximizing energy by using appliances differently while also integrating home batteries to manage demand. On a day with excess solar, smart homes might shift some of the energy to be stored into a battery or a water heater.
Many of the research facilities at NREL are focused on the consumer, including its fuel cell and hydrogen technologies program, which operates out of a $137 million building with the world’s most energy efficient supercomputer that is water cooled instead of air cooled.
“At the end of the day, the consumer is really driving this,” Symko-Davies said.
There is a genuine passion here for numbers, just not necessarily for the budget variety.
“In God we trust, all others bring data,” quipped Wipke, the laboratory program manager for hydrogen, who has been at NREL for half his 48 years.
“A lot of things we love here (have to do with) data. We’re going to gather a lot of data, and we’re not just going to keep it to ourselves, we’re going to put it on a TV screen, and if it’s not good, we’re going to fix it. It’s our little pressure to perform.”
Wipke’s lab is using sunlight to split water into hydrogen, which could be the future of transportation. California is already online with about 3,000 hydrogen cars and fueling stations are starting to proliferate. The only fueling stations that exist so far in Colorado are at the NREL facility.
Over at NREL’s solar facility, some of the researchers joke that “solar isn’t sexy anymore.” It’s a renewable energy that has become fairly commonplace, with panels seen on homes, businesses and public buildings throughout the state and nation.
Again, the consumer is driving the research. Solar cell paint and printing technologies will make the resource even more affordable and practical for consumers. Just over the past decade, the price of solar has dramatically dropped from $4 per watt to just 35 cents per watt.
“There’s a lot of things to explore and investigate,” said Sarah Kurtz, a pioneer of solar research who began working on the technology in 1979 before coming to NREL.
Kurtz remembers when most consumers first experience with solar technology was with calculators that were first introduced in the late-1970s.
“It’s been amazing to me over the years, I thought, ‘That’s obvious.’ But you can’t believe what people come up with,” Kurtz said. “It’s like, ‘What will they think of next?’ And we’re still at that stage. The definition of a breakthrough is when you identify that conventional wisdom doesn’t work.”Content originally published by Colorado Politics on July 6, 2017.