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Power Surge For Lab

Energy crisis and presidential initiative bring new visibility to decades of research at 30-year-old National Renewable Energy Laboratory

by Jeff Johnson
August 28, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 35

If ever there was a time for renewable energy, today is it. Record-high oil, gasoline, and natural gas prices, coupled with a steady stream of blistering news accounts of real or possible global-warming emergencies, have driven even the most fossil-fuel-prone consumers and policymakers to take a hard look at new clean-energy technologies.

Toss in energy supply uncertainty driven by the chaos of the Middle East, the world's chief producer of oil and natural gas, and by the U.S. government's reluctance to address global warming through policy or action, and renewable energy looks even better.

Credit: Warren Gretz/NREL
An NREL chemist conducts compositional analysis of agricultural residues—in this case, corn stover—to determine carbohydrate and lignin content.
Credit: Warren Gretz/NREL
An NREL chemist conducts compositional analysis of agricultural residues—in this case, corn stover—to determine carbohydrate and lignin content.

Former oil man and President George W. Bush made a step to support renewables last January in his State of the Union address when he rolled out his Advanced Energy Initiative, a 22% increase in federal research spending for "clean-energy" research, which for him includes coal and nuclear power along with solar energy.

In his speech, Bush also made his now-famous "America is addicted to oil" statement, announcing a national drive for renewable ethanol as fuel. Ethanol, he continued, "not just made from corn, but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass." He put the program on a fast track, aiming to have ethanol become cost-competitive with gasoline by 2012 and committing the nation to a target of replacing 75% of its oil imports from the Middle East by 2025 through research breakthroughs in ethanol and hydrogen. Middle Eastern suppliers export about 2.5 million barrels of crude oil per day to the U.S., which is about 23% of what the U.S imports currently.

The speech surprised energy policymakers and scientists everywhere, including those at the nation's major renewable energy research facility, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., on the high plains of the Rocky Mountain's Front Range.

"We had no idea this was coming," a lab spokesman said. The speech seemed out of character for a President who had shown little interest in the facility or its research agenda up to then. It appeared even more bizarre a week later when budget cuts forced the lab to lay off 32 staff members.

But then Bush announced a visit to the Colorado facility, the first by a U.S. president since Jimmy Carter came during the last energy crisis. Two days before Bush's February visit, the Department of Energy, which oversees the lab, found the funds to restore the jobs.

NREL Director Dan E. Arvizu notes that the President in his speech singled out three of the lab's most promising core research areas as well as disciplines most dependent on chemists and the chemical sciences: biofuels, hydrogen, and solar energy. And despite the surprise, lab chemists are thrilled with the prospect of an infusion of new life into renewable energy research.

The lab has been operating since 1977, when it was called the Solar Energy Research Institute. It was designated a DOE national laboratory in 1991, changing its name to National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one of some dozen DOE national labs. It is managed by Midwest Research Institute and Battelle. Along with renewable energy, the lab's programs address energy efficiency.

Over the years, the lab has developed some of the world's most advanced renewable energy technologies. However, cheap U.S. energy and national policies that favor fossil fuels have slowed the introduction of renewable energy technologies to U.S. consumers, even as they flourished elsewhere.

Solar power is the example most often pointed to by renewable energy advocates: They bemoan the fact that solar systems based on U.S. technologies are being manufactured by non-U.S. companies and sold mostly in Japan and Europe. Japan, for instance, with its high electricity prices and, until recently, strong government support for solar power, is now the largest manufacturer and consumer of solar power. The result is that U.S. consumers who want solar power must buy from non-U.S. companies (C&EN, June 21, 2004, page 25).

NREL's budget in this decade has varied from $186 million in 2000 to a high of $230 million in 2003, and it has been in decline ever since. The lab employs just under 1,200 staff members, more than half of whom are scientists.

Credit: Jack Dempsey/NREL
President Bush (left, being greeted by Arvizu) is the first president to visit NREL in 30 years, but he proposes to cut the lab???s budget to its lowest level in a decade.
Credit: Jack Dempsey/NREL
President Bush (left, being greeted by Arvizu) is the first president to visit NREL in 30 years, but he proposes to cut the lab???s budget to its lowest level in a decade.

Despite the President's energy push, the Administration is proposing $162 million for the lab in 2007, the lowest level in this decade. For comparison, its funding would be less than half that of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory or a tenth of what Los Alamos National Laboratory gets each year.

Arvizu became lab director in January 2005. He began his 30-year scientific career at AT&T Bell Telephone Labs, moved to Sandia National Laboratories to work on solar energy in the mid-1970s, and went to NREL from CH2M HILL, a government contractor.

"We are in one of these unusual times when there is a national focus on energy," he reflects. "It warms my heart to know that, finally, we are at a point in the national consciousness where renewable energy appears to be more than a science-fair project.

"This has been a tough row to hoe. The technology has progressed, but much of the investment by government and industry has taken time to come to fruition. The technology we pioneered 25 years ago is now finding its way to the marketplace, and industries that are selling it are now making tens of billions of dollars internationally.

"For the first time in my career, people are saying, 'Oh yeah, these things can actually work.' " Arvizu continues. "They are now working, and we have product in the field."

The lab has three national research centers that are focused on photovoltaics, bioenergy, and wind. The wind center is 20 miles north of the 371-acre main site in Golden, just west of Denver. Other research includes vehicle technologies and fuels, electric energy distribution, geothermal energy, hydrogen and fuel cells, basic energy research, and "zero-energy" buildings, which generate as much energy as they use.

The lab operates field-test facilities for solar cells and wind turbines as well as facilities for nonlab researchers in biofuels, distributed energy, and a mix of other energy-related areas, such as building construction. Its researchers try to go into the community. For instance, along with Habitat for Humanity, NREL built a zero-energy house for a family living in a Denver suburb to test the durability of its technologies.

Arvizu says he intends to reach out more to Colorado businesses and universities through lab research and technology development projects that could serve as a springboard to industrial development in Colorado. He envisions a growing relationship between local manufacturers using lab-developed technologies and the lab itself. His goal, he says, is to leave footprints in the community by providing new technologies and jobs and influencing Colorado's university programs.

He notes a growing interest among university students and faculty in energy technology and wants to draw more academic interest to the lab. Several research scientists hold joint appointments with Colorado universities.

NREL's mission has also been applying the technology it has developed, Arvizu says, and he expects that role to increase significantly with a national mandate to increase the use and development of renewable technologies. The lab's push in the future, he says, will be to what he calls "translational sciences," meaning efforts to bridge the gap between basic sciences and the marketplace.

"Our role will be to accelerate the adoption of our technologies," he says. "That is what I think sets us apart from other DOE labs. We have to act as a technology facilitator." As examples, Arvizu singled out NREL research and technology development for solar energy and biomass-based fuels and chemicals.

In the solar arena, Arvizu points to the opening last month of a $22.6 million Science & Technology Test Facility to be used to try out new manufacturing methods and technologies. The focus is mostly on solar energy manufacturing technologies, he says, and the 77,000-sq-ft facility offers companies a place to reconfigure and experiment with manufacturing processes and methods. He acknowledges that scientists have tended to underestimate the importance of the manufacturing chain.

"We will invite industry teams to come in and work with our researchers to perfect manufacturing, lower costs, and accelerate the time it takes for new solar technologies to be manufactured."

On biomass, NREL, along with its own lab-based scientific research, runs two user facilities for biomass research: an Alternative Fuels Facility to test bioprocessing technologies for ethanol and other fuels and chemicals made from cellulosic biomass and a Thermochemical Facility to experiment with catalysts, reactors, gasifiers, and other equipment for converting biomass to simple chemicals and energy.

Industrial partnerships are key to the lab, Arvizu adds, singling out partnerships with Genencor International and Novozymes Biotech that resulted in technologies using enzymatic hydrolysis to break down cellulose. The research cut the costs of cellulase enzyme by more than 10-fold.

Credit: Pat Corker/NREL
Arvizu (left) hosted Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman last month during a visit for the opening of the $22.6 million Science & Technology Test Facility.
Credit: Pat Corker/NREL
Arvizu (left) hosted Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman last month during a visit for the opening of the $22.6 million Science & Technology Test Facility.

The lab also has ongoing partnerships with DuPont, Cargill, the National Corn Growers Association, and others to improve efficiencies and reduce costs of producing ethanol and other chemicals that could serve as platform chemical feedstocks.

The lab's bioenergy-related research is directed almost exclusively to making ethanol from cellulosic plant waste, rather than from seed or corn kernels. The U.S. is close to matching world-leader Brazil's ethanol production and is likely to produce some 5 billion gal this year. This equals 3-5% of U.S. auto fuel and requires 17% of U.S. corn. But to reach the President's goals, the nation must move beyond corn kernels for ethanol feedstock.

Arvizu notes that NREL's research is focused on the entire biofuels chain: enhancing conversion of cellulosic biomass into fermentable sugars, fermenting these sugars into a distillate or ethanol, and developing plant genomics to produce harvestable plants with more accessible sugars.

DOE and NREL's goal is to bring the nation's first commercial-sized cellulosic ethanol production facility onstream by 2012.

The President's new interest in renewable energy is reflected in his budget, but it merits a closer look. For 2007, the Administration is proposing $148 million for solar energy and $149 million for biomass- and biorefinery-related programs. These are increases of about $60 million each.

By comparison, however, the Administration proposes spending in 2007 $330 million for coal research, more than twice the renewable energy lab's entire budget, and $347 million for nuclear power R&D. Both are mature technologies, providing 53% and 20% of U.S. electricity, respectively.

NREL's solar and biomass programs, however, do not reflect Bush's budget increase. The President proposes cutting NREL's solar energy programs from $52 million this year to $45 million in 2007; the lab's biomass funding is to be increased slightly to $27 million, but NREL's portion remains a small part of the overall bioenergy proposal for 2007. The majority of the increases are going to other research labs and activities, as well as industry and university partnerships, Arvizu believes. The budget proposal does not spell out where the funds will wind up, and Congress has not finalized DOE's budget for the next fiscal year.

"I did have a conversation about this with the President when he was here," Arvizu says. "This budget is not a good testimonial. I am optimistic, however, that our funding for 2007 will be restored. I get a great amount of encouragement from DOE and others that we are playing an important role."

But he notes that the new solar manufacturing lab is the first new building constructed at NREL in 10 years, and half the lab's staff works in leased buildings spread around the Golden area. "We need our own campus. Over the long term, we have not had the kind of support we need. We now have an opportunity to demonstrate what we have to contribute, but this will take resources."

In the end, NREL's future may depend more on the cost of energy and the impact and fear of global warming than on support from Bush or the presidents who will follow. If the price of its technologies decreases and the cost of energy continues to rise, consumers and utilities will be more likely to purchase and install renewable energy, and the fruits of NREL's research will be more visible and more in demand.


Programs by a growing number of states to subsidize renewable energy applications will only hasten the shift.


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