The headline of the recent press release we received at our editorial offices read: NREL’s Economic Benefit to Colorado totals $831.3 Million in FY 2011 Federal Laboratory employs more than 2,000; economic impact grew 41% from FY 2009.
By David A. Hill, Executive Editor
It went on to spell out the lab’s economic impact to Jefferson County where NREL is located, as well as an assortment of other facts and figures, including the lab’s employment and education resume.
The PR push comes on the heels of a year when the national lab was at the end of well-publicized criticisms of how much it spends and how many workers it employs – mostly from state GOP politicians – at the height of the debt ceiling debate.
The study’s authors looked at economic benefits, public costs, capital expenditures, operating expenditures, and secondary or multiplier effects in coming up with the final numbers. Jefferson County, where NREL’s main campus is located and where more than half of NREL’s employees call home, enjoyed the greatest economic impact, with $305 million. NREL is one of Jefferson County’s largest employers, the study says.
For Dan Arvizu, Director of the sprawling NREL campus, the economic news is testimony to the aggressive course of action the DOE national lab has been taking in recent years. Despite the critics, Arvizu told Colorado Energy News that “NREL is doing as well as it ever has … and at the pinnacle of the renewable energy space.”
PARTNERSHIPS KEY LAB WORK
“NREL is strengthening a growing number of government/private sector partnerships that are at the core of the lab’s activities in recent years,” according to Arvizu. “Moving technology into the marketplace is our mission. We’re helping accelerate energy in this country into a more sustainable future.”
NREL is the catalyst for pulling investment multiples from private investment community for specific clean energy launches. Critics have said the lab, which is funded by DOE government money, is way too costly for what it produces and doesn’t generate enough real world jobs and economic impact.
The release spotlighting the economic impact of NREL disputes that notion. Arvizu points to tangible results from the numerous partnerships the lab has developed. “These are contributing to new business launches in the clean tech space.”
The bottom line, according to the Director, is an impressive 6:1 ratio when it comes to investment dollars the Lab ponies up and what it gets from the private sector. For every dollar invested in partnerships that comes from the government, NREL generates six bucks from the private sector.
NREL leads national labs in partnership investments, which saw 133 new agreements last fiscal year, and 36 cooperative agreements with a $50 million NREL investment, joining nearly $ 60 million from the private sector.
“These partnerships create jobs, says Arvizu, citing another metric he likes to use – NREL’s small business incubator.
“Over the last few years, we’ve invested on average $3 million per company, and a rough total of $60 million in 20 companies. After these companies graduated from our incubator program, they went into the real world and attracted more than $1 billion in additional private investment.”
THE MARKET PLAY CATCHUP
“In the last several years, we’re seeing an explosion in the energy economy sector, which is what NREL has been all about for three decades,” Arvizu points out. “We can finally take full advantage of what is happening, citing First Solar as a prime example. We spent 20 years developing technology behind the company, and today they are the largest PV producer in the country.”
Understandably, Arvizu and his troops are cautiously optimistic about NREL’s share of the federal budget, but the partisan battles in Washington over federal dollars gives them pause.
“Right now, we don’t have a strong federal policy in place,and we’re concerned about what happens in the future.”
“ The technologies of renewables, clean gas, energy efficiency … these are being developed in Colorado and that is critical at the national level,” said Arvizu, “because so much of what happens in the new energy sector occurs at the grass roots, state level. Here in Colorado, NREL is supporting sustainable technologies, and innovation is the key to meeting our country’s energy challenges.”
Arvizu continued, “There are lots of moving parts to energy systems, from basic science to policy and standards and investments, and certainly there is an international component you cannot ignore. Really, it is the incremental changes that makes companies profitable and that is something we’re reminded of all the time.”
THE BEST BIG THING
A significant portion of NREL’s work going forward is how energy is moved from where it is generated. Distributed generation, storage, vehicles-to-grid, demand side management, changing the way the grid operates … these are the areas, Arvizu said, the lab is focused on so society can ultimately benefit from changing technologies.
The geographic epicenter of the lab’s work in this area will be the new Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), scheduled for completion by the end of the year.
In the ESIF, researchers will tackle the challenge of keeping the power grid running reliably while at the same time introducing a host of new technologies into an already complex system.
ESIF is the first significant DOE laboratory designed specifically to deal with the integration issue. NREL’s researchers will be able to configure electric systems the way they would appear in the field and operate them at the same level of power as the utility uses.
NREL also focuses on reducing energy use. Dan gets animated when he talks about NREL’s new office building, the Research Support Facility. The new building, 360,000 square feet in size and workplace for 1,400 people, is the star attraction on NREL tours, drawing 24,000 visitors last year.
Built to the highest LEED Platinum standards, it essentially generates all that it uses. And at roughly $289 per square foot, the building was constructed for less than critics of this type of endeavor would have you think.
A host of cool and ultra efficient systems are in play, including 2.5 megawatts of solar power, and a thermal management that includes a labyrinth of thermal heat storage under the ground floor. Other notable achievements: one-third of energy usage in the building comes from a green data center. The windows include triple pane and dynamic models, and louvers that transfer light. Just as impressive, workers can open and close them, something that is normally prohibited for federal buildings. The list goes on: Natural gas pipes have been recycled to be structural columns, and an active water heating and cooling system operates on all the floors.
“Our mission with this building is to accelerate the adoption of these technologies into the marketplace,” says Arvizu. “What we did here can be replicated anywhere and we’ll share the design plans with anyone. In fact, the U.S. Navy wants to build similar structures at their naval facilities, according to the Director.
The bidding process for constructing the building was novel. Instead of the usual bidding procedure, NREL took on the design/build process from the start and established a performance specification. “We said to the companies, ‘this is what we want in the building. Tell us how we can get it done,” Arvizu recalled. One of the lab’s goals for the building was 30K BTU per square foot.
“It wasn’t easy, and two of the three companies bidding walked away from the table. We coaxed them back, including the builder that ultimately won the contract for the job.” As the lab moves ahead, one of its R&D projects being pursued is how to optimize the integration of natural gas with renewables and other technologies to get the best total outcome.
“The transport sector is more difficult, “the Director notes, because it is dependent, at least still for now, on one fuel – petroleum. Biofuels and natural gas can be important, along with electrifying the transportation industry, but their roles are only part of the solution.”
If NREL’s recent achievements are any indication, this big picture goal will be achieved. Time to get back to work.