Collaborating on clean energy

Colorado has a long history in the energy industry, so it’s no surprise that the state also is well-established as a leader in renewable energy research.

With energy prices rising and oil and gas supplies diminishing, three Colorado research universities and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden are working together to find solutions.

The Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado State University in Fort Collins and the University of Colorado Boulder formed a partnership with NREL called the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, which works closely with public agencies, private enterprise and nonprofits to increase the production of renewable energy sources and to support economic growth through renewable energy industries in urban and rural areas.

The Collaboratory’s centers conduct research on biofuels and biorefining, solar energy, wind energy, carbon management and energy systems integration.

The project was initiated by former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, now Secretary of the Interior, because he saw the need and value of closely linking NREL to strong state research universities, said Dag Nummedal, director of the Colorado Energy Research Institute at the Colorado School of Mines. “We work hand-in-hand on everything we do.”

The Colorado School of Mines has numerous programs that relate to renewable energy research, including the Renewable Energy Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, a partnership with NREL that researches and develops photovoltaic technologies. The Colorado Energy Research Institute brings industry, government and academic interests together to tackle energy issues, including finding new renewable energy resources and positioning Colorado as an energy industry leader.

“Every university in Colorado has areas of expertise. More and more, big energy problems require collaboration,” said Morgan DeFoort, co-director of the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory at Colorado State University. The more seamlessly the universities work together to find solutions to problems, DeFoort said, the more competitive Colorado’s research and development industry will become.

CSU has more than 120 faculty members involved in the renewable energy arena, where the research focus is on biofuels and biorefining, wind and solar.

“What we’re really looking at now is a transition strategy toward cleaner, more efficient production and use of traditional fuels,” said William Farland, CSU’s vice president of research. “That transition, from there into renewables, is going to take some time, but it makes sense for us to focus on traditional fuels and renewables as we do our research and move the field forward.” The university’s energy work brings in between $50 million and $60 million a year in research dollars, he said.

The Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, RASEI, is working on getting both solar and wind energy to a point where they can make it commercially, said Carl Koval, associate director for research at RASEI. The biggest challenge is getting renewable technologies to a large enough scale that they can impact world energy use, he said. To do this, they must be incorporated into the energy economies of fast-growing, developing countries such as China and India so that those countries don’t become dependent on fossil fuels.

A recent Department of Energy report showed that the United States uses a total of 100 quadrillion British thermal units a year. Wind already produces 1 quad per year, but solar produces much less.

“Any technology that can’t get to 1 percent of that by 2030 is not a player in the game,” Koval said.

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