Six stalwart UFTO company representatives and yours truly spent the entire day on May 8 at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), in Golden CO.

NREL is the smallest of the DOE national labs, with just over 1000 staff, and an annual budget of $187 million (FY00).. It is also the only lab with a specifically defined mission to advance renewable energy technology. NREL has a number of special purpose facilities and programs in wind, solar (PV and thermal), biomass/bioenergy, hydrogen and advanced transportation vehicles.

One impression that struck us was the strong sense of purpose and commitment that the NREL staff bring to their work. They really seem motivated by a desire to make the world a better place.

In terms of technical content, it was a bit of a drink from a firehose. Each presenter managed in under an hour to encapsulate the state of the art, explain the context and importance, and indicate what NREL’s particular role is.

(Presentations are available for download from the UFTO website–client password required. To access the directory of all presentation files, go to:
Or click on the links below to download individual documents directly.)

Obviously, in this amount of time we were only beginning to scratch the surface–myriad information resources abound on the DOE, NREL and other websites and publications. Best of all, perhaps, was the opportunity to meet the people doing the work, and to be able to recontact them to dig deeper.

Discussions of context and importance reflected a familiar list of driving forces (climate, resources, population, poverty, etc.). Energy demand will grow substantially; oil and gas won’t last forever. Renewables are on a decades-long development cycle that most new technologies (e.g. oil) have experienced in the past. Their cost and performance characteristics are now beginning to reach a point where their use is increasingly entering the mainstream in a major way.

One idea that NREL has been talking about for a couple of years — if the 20th century was the fossil energy century, then perhaps the 21st will be the biological energy century, with “biorefineries” gradually taking the place of oil refineries to provide fuels, chemicals, and myriad other material feedstocks of the economy. It’s definitely a long-term vision, but one can cite several examples where this already happens, e.g. in a paper mill, trees become paper, energy and other products. Another is corn, which becomes ethanol, corn, and livestock feed.

NREL Overview (1.2 mb)
David Warner,
Lee Boughey,
Industry Liaison

Distributed Energy Resources and Hydrogen (820kb)
Tony Schaffhauser,
Director , Distributed Energy Resources Center

This group pursues the linkages of renewables and natural gas with national energy needs through distributed generation. They provide analysis tools, test facilities, resource assessment, and work on standards, codes, and regulatory/institutional issues.

Renewable Resource Data Center (RReDC) provides information on several types of renewable energy resources in the United States, in the form of publications, data, and maps. GIS integration enables overlay of related infrastructures, e.g. pipelines, roads, and transmission lines.

Solar Programs Overview (7mb)
John Benner,

PV Roadmap:

Some key take-aways:
– “Breakthroughs” are not necessary. PV is on track to become a major energy supply via gradual improvement. The range of cost-effective applications is rapidly expanding, with PV energy costing from 10-50¢/kwh. Over the last 20 years, prices have fallen 25% with each doubling of cumulative shipments.
– Silicon PV rides on the shoulders of the semiconductor industry, with all its materials, equipment and manufacturing technology (e.g. the progress from 6″ to 8″ to 12″ wafers). (NREL’s PV lab does research funded by IC companies!) Even amorphous silicon can draw from the flat panels industry. The various thin-film technologies have no such opportunity to leverage better established industry capabilities.
– Thin film, though less efficient, is cheaper, and can fill important niches such as building-integrated PV.
– US market share is dropping. Elsewhere in the world, interest, and government support is leading to faster growth. World wide production is over 400 MW/year.
– There are lots of myths to dispel. For example, some say that huge land areas are required. Answer: existing roofs are more than enough.

Superconductivity (2.8mb)
Richard Blaugher,
Technology Manager, Superconductivity Program

NREL is one six DOE labs that work in superconductivity (SC). The DOE website has a lot of information about the overall effort:
(note in particular “Library” and “Technology Status”)

There are two main thrusts: basic research into new materials and wire or ribbon fabrication methods, and develop superconducting electronic power devices, in collaboration with industry. Devices include transformers, cables, a motor, current limiter and a magnetic separator. (Fact sheets on each one are available under “The Partnership”.) Utilities are involved with several of these projects.

NREL’s own internal R&D includes development of new coating techniques to make HTSC ribbon. One method uses electrodeposition, and recently a dip-coating technique has set new records for current density.

See Blaugher’s excellent review article from 2000 Global Energy Prospects.doc (52kb)

Energy Analysis Overview (3.1mb)
Walter Short,

This group, along with counterparts throughout the lab, studies technology, policy and market issues to support decision making at the program level, lab management, and DOE headquarters. They develop models and tools and perform analyses such as life-cycle cost, technology choice, R&D program prioritization and review, etc.
The website has a lot of good material, including publications and even an online software tool for renewable energy cost estimation.

Enterprise Development Program (1.2mb) (word 300kb)

Marty Murphy,

This unique program supports innovators, recognizing the need for viable small companies as one of the principal mechanisms to carry new technologies forward to commercialization. The website offers an broad array of reference and other materials to help them with all aspects of their business, especially fundraising. Venture investment forums are held around the company. Over 200 companies have presented in past events. NREL has also been instrumental in establishing a new national alliance of incubators around the country which focus on clean energy.

Next event: The 15th NREL Industry Growth Forum
Oct. 29- 30, 2002 in Albany, NY.

Biofuels Overview (1.9mb)
Cindy Riley,
Process Development Leader
Biotechnology Division for Fuels and Chemicals

Ethanol from cellulosic biomass is a key goal of NREL’s. For thousands of years, ethanol has been made by fermentation of sugars and starches; most of today’s US ethanol is made from corn. Most biomass, however, consists of lignin and cellulosic material which has to be broken down first. Various combinations of acids and enzymes are used to convert the cellulose to sugars which then can be fermented. (Lignin remains, and once separated has uses of its own.)

The DOE website gives a good overview of the process:

NREL’s program includes engineering new enzymes and yeasts, process technology, a major test facility, resource analysis, and systems economics studies, with a goal to bring the production cost of bioethanol down to $1/gallon by 2010. Bioethanol, and many various potential coproducts, could be a major realization of the “biorefinery” vision.

Bioenergy Overview (5.3mb)
Rich Bain, Group Manager,
Chemistry for Bioenergy Systems

Following the ethanol story, bioenergy is a far broader topic. Noting there are hundreds of bio-based production facilities in the US already (which already produce over 6000 MW of power), this presentation reviewed many of the huge variety of opportunities within the biorefinery concept, from biodiesel to biopower and gasification at scales ranging from 15 kw to the 200 tons/day Battelle Gasifier.

Tour of the National Wind Test Center (2.4 mb)
Brian Smith, Turbine Program Development,,
Jim Johnson, Site Operations,,

As with solar, Europe leads the US by a wide margin in deployment of windpower, with a total installed capacity nearly four times ours. The economics of wind are steadily improving, and some very large companies are heavily committed. As DOE’s lead laboratory in wind technology development, NREL operates the National Wind Technology Center and manages turbine research programs and applied research activities.

We visited the Center, 30 minutes from NREL, and toured the facilities, which are available to wind turbine manufacturers for equipment test and evaluation.

NREL operates the only full-scale blade testing facility in the U.S. for MW-scale wind turbines. 35 meter length blades are pushed and pulled a million times to find their weak points. The full-system wind turbine drive train testing accommodates up to 2.5 MW turbines. A huge electric motor drive simulates the wind, pushing systems to their limit. This facility in the only one of its kind in the world. In addition, there is a strong gusty wind that comes through a notch in the mountains. This would make a poor production resource, but is an excellent testing environment, as it subjects systems to highly variable and difficult conditions. Full scale turbines of all sizes are installed at the site and monitored in detail. Our group actually got to up inside a 600 kw wind turbine– impressive to say the least, at 120 feet above the ground.

Distributed Energy Resources/Hybrid Test Facility (256kb)
Ben Kroposki,

This facility has a variety of distributed generation technologies, a grid simulator and load banks. It is used to test inverters and interconnection power electronic systems, especially those developed under the DOE Distributed Power Program. Recently, the mission has been expanded to do testing of standards, “testing the test” to see if proposed standards can be used in practice.

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