NREL: It’s not just solar any more

GOLDEN — It is possible that the only institutions that rival universities for the amount of ideas and inventions they generate are federal labs, and the pre-eminent example might be the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

Founded in 1977, NREL is part of the Department of Energy and is funded by the federal government, with a budget of $388.6 million in fiscal 2011.

Research at NREL can range from cutting-edge research and development that might be years away from bearing fruit to working with small companies to improve their technologies, said William Farris, association lab director for innovation partnering and outreach.

By design, NREL’s focus is narrow. Its scientists study only renewable energy and energy efficiency technology. However, its impact has been profound. The lab’s research and personnel have shaped the solar power and wind industries, Farris said.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a solar company in the U.S. that doesn’t have an NREL alumni on its staff,” Farris said.

NREL’s legacy dates back to the days when it only focused on solar energy, but in 1991 its mission was broadened.

Now it includes facilities such as the National Wind Technology Center, which can be seen from most of Boulder County. Turbine builders large and small use the facility to test equipment and designs.

While the technology transfer mission is shared with universities, there are major differences in how NREL and universities operate.

At NREL, the goal of technology transfer is to form partnerships with private industry.

“The ideal for us is to do early research that is innovative and has market potential, and then we work with a partner,” Farris said.

While many NREL researchers have started companies, they almost always have to leave the lab to do so. Federal rules are strict about conflict of interest and use of federal funds for private companies.

“It’s hard to have a foot in both camps,” Farris said.

That does not discourage NREL staff, who recognize their work can have the greatest effect if it’s taken up by private industry and becomes widely adopted.

“Most of the staff here believes in clean energy and the mission,” Farris said, “and they want to see the research get into the market and make an impact.”

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