The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) saved Partner Week, one of the biggest events during its yearlong 40th anniversary in 2017, for last.
The first-time conference and networking gathering in September was a tour de force marking how far the lab has come in four decades. Under the banner of “Energy Innovation Trends,” Partner Week brought representatives of collaborating companies and organizations, as well as other stakeholders and experts, from across the Centennial State and beyond to NREL’s campus in Golden, Colorado, and the National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) near Boulder.
“Look around the room; you are all very important to where we want to go in our next 40 years,” NREL Laboratory Director Martin Keller told the Partner Week audience. “We feel it is our job to take clean energy technology, partner up with industries, NGOs, and others, and then push it forward and bring it into the market.”
Perhaps as never before, NREL used Partner Week to shine a spotlight on the more than 700 active partnership agreements with which the lab currently is engaged. All partners – small and large businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions, as well as local, state, and federal government – are working with NREL to solve energy challenges. The lab’s message that all are welcome is gaining traction, and having mission impact. In fiscal year 2017 alone, the lab developed 282 new or expanded partnerships worth $80 million.
The cooperation often grows out of blending strengths. That was the case when NREL’s Steve Hammond, director of the lab’s Computational Science Center, had an unorthodox vision more than a decade ago. “I said we wanted to use water, and everyone knows water and electronics don’t mix.”
Enter Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) as a partner. Together, NREL and HPE preserved through ups and downs to create Peregrine, a supercomputer at NREL that uses warm water to cool its servers, and then reuses that water to heat its building. It was so successful that it earned HPE and NREL an R&D 100 Award in 2014. The partnership continues, and Partner Week’s keynote speaker, HPE CEO Meg Whitman, noted that the collaboration helped HPE launch a successful high-performance computing line.
Today, there’s a real pride at NREL on how its extended “family” has grown over the years. From a start as the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), the lab and its research partners have helped shape the energy landscape and drive the economy in Colorado and elsewhere.
In that vein, NWTC Partnership Manager Brian Smith notes that NREL deserves credit as a “matchmaker” for precursors of GE Power and Siemens Gamesa. The two global renewable energy leaders are the result of mergers among four independent firms: Siemens and Gamesa, as well as GE and Alstom’s power and grid businesses. Smith said “the GE turbine is located next to the Alstom turbine at NREL, and the Siemens turbine is next to the Gamesa turbine, so the NWTC is your matchmaker,” adding with a smile, “It’s part of the long-term strategy we have.”
Smith’s humorous remark was based on a simple truth. These major players have local offices, and often credit NREL with playing a vital role in advancing their industry, whether through validation or promotion of standards. “GE has multiple experiences working very effectively with NREL, under various types of agreements,” said Roger Schonewald of GE Power. He described the example of working with the lab on drive-train testing at the NWTC’s drivetrain facility as “a win-win opportunity.” And Vestas, which has been manufacturing turbine blades in Colorado since 2008, is interested in expanding ties with NREL. Already part of the NREL-initiated Gearbox Reliability Collaborative, which consists of manufacturers, owners, researchers, and consultants, Vestas is open to future collaborations.
“We don’t do enough with NREL,” said Hans Jespersen of the Denmark-based wind company. “But we plan to send a team to NREL this fall to discuss opportunities for expanding our cooperation.” That kind of talk is music to Smith’s ears, because one of his favorite phrases is “partner with NREL.”
NREL’s collaborations are having a big impact in the Centennial State. “Colorado is a leader in diverse energy innovation, and having a national lab here keeps us in the forefront of research and helps retain top talent,” said Katie Woslager of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
Indeed, NREL is literally helping reshape the Colorado landscape. For example, beginning in 2015, NREL and Colorado State University linked up to develop sustainable strategies to create a “net zero” district at the future National Western Center. Revamping this iconic site is an approximately $1 billion project that will help revitalize some prime real estate in Denver, and Jocelyn Hittle, CSU’s Director of Denver Program Development, is relying on NREL to provide key expertise. “Collaborating with NREL on the National Western Center project allows access to NREL expertise while exploring the possibility of a net zero district,” she said.
Xcel Energy explained they chose to partner with NREL as part of an effort along with Panasonic Corporation to simulate and optimize the energy load profile of Peña Station NEXT, a planned 382-acre mixed-use development near Denver International Airport. The project will employ the grid-modeling capabilities of NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) while demonstrating URBANopt software, a buildings and district energy modeling tool currently under development at NREL. “We will share our expertise and apply the lessons learned from this project to future developments,” said Shanti Pless, an engineer with NREL.
And it’s not just in big civic projects that NREL is moving the needle. Brice Leconte, founder of Denver’s iUNIT, is teaming with the lab to refine the net zero, grid-friendly, and technology-integrated multifamily construction.
“We are using ESIF to employ apartment-in-the-loop research capabilities and energy modeling tools for enhanced energy efficiency,” Pless said. “The team aims to understand how a reduction in apartment-scale energy loads combined with energy storage can be scaled up to whole-building energy management.”
NREL has other partnering events, such as the annual Industry Growth Forum, during which entrepreneurs, startups, and stakeholders gather to exchange information on the latest clean technologies and also hosts the Innovation Incubator Summit, a gathering of entrepreneurs and supporters. Both events are part of the IN2 program NREL manages with the Wells Fargo Foundation. Clearly, the lab places a premium on its power partners.
“We are reaching out to show how we connect what we are doing through our partnerships,” Keller said. And that will be the lab’s strategy for decades to come.
Bill Farris is associate laboratory director for innovation, partnering & outreach at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.