The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory demonstrates the art of the possible for the clean tech industry – policymakers and business leaders should make the journey
Green geek heaven can be found a short drive outside Denver at the point where the vast Mid-Western plain meets the majestic Colorado Rockies. At this time of year the air is cold and thin, the ground is covered in snow, and the campus feels strangely quiet following the Thanksgiving weekend. And yet the environmental innovation nirvana that is the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) remains one of the most inspiring places in the world for anyone who cares about the future of the planet.
Guiding representatives of the UK's Clean and Cool Mission around the giant campus, NREL's James Bosch stresses that it is a "living laboratory", providing both state-of-the-art facilities for the 2,500 engineers, scientists, and support staff who work at the site and the perfect demonstration site for new clean technologies.
As such, visitors to the facility are welcomed by a sign lit up with LED lights that are powered by solar cells, the multi-storey car park boasts a 1.13MW solar array on the roof and 36 electric vehicle charge points in the bays, electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars journey around the campus, and a biomass boiler fuelled by beetle-killed pine wood provides heat for many of the site's buildings. In addition, construction materials and furniture that make use of recycled materials are evident throughout, while the use of ultra-efficient lighting is kept to a minimum by building designs that optimise the use of natural light. Meanwhile, electro chromic windows respond to temperature and light to minimise glare and optimise temperatures in the buildings, so that on a freezing cold day in winter some south-facing windows automatically show black on the outside in order to help absorb as much thermal energy as possible.
Offsite a dedicated wind farm and solar farm provide both power and test facilities for new turbine and solar panel designs, while back in one of the largest buildings on campus a specially designed air-cooled data centre provides usable heat for much of the rest of the lab and boasts a data centre Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) ratio of just 1.06. I had to double check with Bosch to confirm he had not misspoken, given PUEs for typical data centres can reach as high as 2 and some reports suggest that globally the average is still thought to stand well above 1.5. But no, for every watt of power used to drive the servers at NREL only 0.06 watts are used to power supporting infrastructure.
The use of these various pioneering clean technologies means that several of the buildings are "net zero" users of energy over the course of a year, generating more power on site than they draw from the grid - a performance that is emphasised by real time smart meter displays that demonstrate how much power a building is either drawing or feeding to the grid at any one time.
However, the green building technologies installed at NREL are just a fraction of the story at this remarkable facility. The real news is to be found in the work that goes on in these buildings.
Inside just one of the buildings a series of giant labs sit next to one another, providing state-of-the-art research facilities for work on solar cells, wind turbines, power systems integration or smart grids, ultra-efficient vehicles, energy system fabrication, materials characterisation, electrochemical characterisation, energy system sensors, batteries, and thermal storage materials, to name but a few. A dedicated hydrogen fuel cell lab provides hydrogen on tap as well as bays to test up to 15 fuel cell stacks. A lab for smart building technologies looks like an IKEA shop floor, providing full-scale mock-ups of livings rooms and kitchens for testing new green devices. And perhaps best of all a giant computer screen that looks to be at least 25 feet by 10 feet is combined with special sci-fi goggles and what looks like the largest ever Playstation controller to allow designers to model the use of new technologies in the real world. On the day we toured a wind farm was being planned that tracked the impact of turbines on wind flows, but Bosch insisted the giant modelling system could be used to predict real world environmental impacts of everything from cityscapes to nanotechnologies.
The NREL's track record is as impressive as its showcased technologies. Originally launched as the Solar Energy Research Institute in 1977 as the Carter administration responded to the first oil crisis, it was reinvented as NREL in the mid 1990s. Through both guises it has produced countless patents and Bosch argues that it can reasonably claim to have had a crucial role in many now well-established clean technologies, developing much of the underlying technology used in solar PV systems, optimising wind turbine designs to help support big gains in efficiency, and playing its part in the development of hybrid engines.
This pursuit of clean technologies is ongoing with the Lab's $325m annual budget supporting countless standalone research projects, enabling co-funded initiatives with businesses, providing facilities for corporates to test and validate new clean technologies, and allowing partnerships with around 50 labs in other countries. "We encourage working with others as we all breathe the same air and drink the same water," explains Bosch. "We are very open to institutional partnerships."
In recent years a number of initiatives have been set up to try and inform business leaders, politicians and other public figures about the grave threat posed by climate change, with Al Gore's series of lectures and workshops the most obvious example of a well-meaning and largely effective trend. But NREL highlights the need for a counterpoint to these initiatives through a series of activities and campaigns that ensure business, political, and cultural leaders are also aware of the remarkable new technologies and opportunities that are being developed to help address those same climate change threats. Perhaps Gore should consider a Convenient Truth campaign, that truth being that all of the technologies we need to tackle climate change have already been invented and are now being optimised.
Places like Colorado's green geek heaven exist, just as the group of remarkable British clean tech start-ups that made up last week's Clean and Cool Mission also exist - it is only by recognising, supporting, and nurturing them that we can avoid the nihilism that almost inevitably comes with an honest assessment of current environmental risks. Just as it is only by understanding the work that is going on at the cutting edge of clean technologies that policymakers and business leaders can avoid making short-term investment decisions that lock us into the polluting technologies of the 20th century at a time when the clean technologies of the 21st century are on the cusp of viability.
Institutions like the NREL and companies like the Clean and Cool Mission alumni with their high powered magnets, electric superbikes, and biomass breakthroughs have a responsibility to highlight their work and do everything they can to co-operate in order to provide the most effective crucible possible to accelerate the development of the cost-effective clean technologies we all need. Just as the media and NGO community also have a responsibility to let the world know that encouraging technological progress is being made to tackle the grave environmental risks that we all face.
Perhaps not every country can afford its own NREL, but the dedicated and integrated public-private approach to research, development, and real world deployment that it has pioneered is a model every government and business can learn from. The UK and the EU have several of their own world-class clean tech research institutions, but what NREL demonstrates is the myriad benefits that come from creating a genuine hub that brings together a host of different but complementary disciplines.
More broadly the US approach to creating clean tech clusters from regions that combine academic and government institutions with those start-ups which are capable of producing both cutting-edge technologies and the kind of ambitious business and marketing plans that can attract investors is something the UK should certainly seek to emulate. Without this co-ordinated approach clean tech start-ups will find it harder than it should be to raise investment, optimise technologies, and commercialise their products. A failure to build on the success of NREL threatens to deliver a hellish scenario - and not just for green geeks.
BusinessGreen was a guest of last week's Clean and Cool Mission Colorado
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