National Labs – Time to Recalibrate and Step Up to the Challenge

With natural gas and petroleum prices still at record levels, a series of devastating hurricanes hitting the southeastern US, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (where over 2,000 US lives lost and rising), and competition for finite energy resources from China, India and others – we all know that energy is going to be at the top of the list for quite awhile.

While this summer’s Energy Policy Act and its latest reincarnation, the Energy Bill II may do little to address these issues, the short term tax credits and ambitious State programs from Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards, continued investments by State clean energy System Benefit Trust Funds, and aggressive initiatives – such as the Western Governors Association to Governor Schwatzeneggar’s revived Million Solar Roofs Initiative – – will assuredly grow the renewable and clean distributed energy markets here in the States. But an important question should focus on the role of the DOE-sponsored National Laboratories, particularly the dedicated renewable energy institution – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. Before I start an article like this, it is important to separate the hardworking researchers from the policymakers and setters. NREL has done some outstanding work and even recently won some awards. In October, scientists and engineers at 12 US Department of Energy national laboratories won 29 of the 100 awards given out this year by R&D Magazine. The prestigious “R&D 100” awards honor the most outstanding technology developments of the year that have commercial potential. Of the 12 DOE awards, three related directly to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Specifically, NREL helped develop a method of detecting impurities and defects in silicon boules, the single-crystal ingots from which solar cells are made. The lab also helped to develop an energy-modeling program called Targeted Residential Energy Analysis Tools (TREAT), which identifies the most cost-effective energy efficiency upgrades for both single-family and multifamily homes. The third award went to DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which worked with SEMCO Inc. to develop a rooftop air conditioner that can independently control humidity and temperature while delivering any specified percentage of outdoor air into commercial and institutional buildings. But R&D 100 awards aside, the role of NREL and its ability to insert itself more plainly at the cutting edge is open to question. Now again, federal RD&D budgets have been stagnant and more appropriations directed line-items wrench dollars from the Labs into more regional and applied projects. So life at the bottom of the federal R&D food chain isn’t all that rosy in times of expected budget cuts. And NREL’s newly-selected director, Dan Arvizu has just gotten into the driver’s seat and change takes awhile. However, the world does not sit still – federal budgets always fluctuate and international competition remains relentless. The National Academy recently recommended in its report that the US Department of Energy establish a program similar to the Department of Defense’s “Defense Advanced Research Program” (DARPA). DARPA has been extremely successful not only because it works closely with private sector players but it also doggedly drives the cutting edge technologies and applications essential for the US military to stay ahead of the competitors. It’s a great idea, but this still begs the question of the role of the National labs, in the case of REN readers and this author, primarily NREL, but also Oak Ridge, Sandia, and Pacific NW Laboratories, The fundamental question in the Washington “power” relationship is whether these labs are basically support contractors to DOE, or whether DOE is a sponsor “only” of the institution. What makes DARPA so successful and well liked by US industry is that they set tough goals but basically let the companies evolve the technology(s) and sometimes competitively with other companies being funded in parallel. Could possibly the same approach work for our national labs – that DOE supplies funds and guidance – but the labs and its university and corporate partners are allowed more freely to copilot their parallel futures? But aside from the National Academy, public comments on the new roles and responsibilities of the Labs – really aren’t coming from the Lab directors themselves. The Challenge for research veteran Arvizu, who spent a long tenure at Sandia and in the private sector with CH2M Hill, is how will the NREL overseers allow him to not only be visionary, but stake an appropriate longterm role for NREL. This is complicated by the schizophrenic environment of the Administration, who lauds renewables in public and in private shakes its head and says the combined efficiency/renewable sector makes little impact in overall US energy and economic growth requirements. Yes it’s wrongheaded but they are stubbornly persistent – with the traditional energy industries vociferously in the background. But leaders of institutions must and should take risks. While DOE has worked with the different industry sectors to establish RD&D Roadmaps and the national labs have been involved in that process – the leadership of NREL and its sister national laboratories remain silent. Now as this commentary is published, I will assuredly be sent notes from the laboratory directors of the important statements and documents they published that state great and lofty commitments to renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable energy. And I have read most of them – “nice words” are not what I am talking about. Will off-shore natural gas and petroleum drilling significantly increase domestic US energy production – no. Will offshore Liquified Natural Gas terminals increase US imports and make our energy delivery chain more susceptible to terrorism, international intrigue, and intense weather patterns – yes. Will increased use of nuclear energy place more strains on multi-thousand year waste storage and protection from terrorism, earthquakes and other bad events – yes. Will increased use of coal and other fossil fuels exacerbate our existing Clean Air Act Standards (SO2, NOx, and particulates) and emissions changing our global climate – yes. And thus the fundamental role of our renewable energy and energy efficiency research institutions are to provide options for the American (and global) public. This need has never been greater. It’s time to be less complacent, and not only more visionary, but also more directed and determined. NREL and our other national laboratories must step up to the challenge. Less emphasis on support contracting (which spanned Administrations), and more on staking out what the responsibilities, challenges and risks that need to be shared and carried by these important public research and analytical institutions. About the author… Scott Sklar is president of his own policy and strategic marketing firm, The Stella Group Ltd., Washington, D.C. ( Previously, he served simultaneously as executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association and the National BioEnergy Industries Association for 15 years. His book, A Consumer Guide to Solar Energy, was re-released in 2004 for its third printing.
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