March 9, 2017

Two people in the Insight Center Visualization Room in the ESIF.

Sheila Hayter, Manager of NREL's Strategies and Implementation group, and Kenny Gruchalla look at a community energy grid model in the ESIF's Insight Center Visualization Room. Efforts to improve the security of the electrical grid are underway at NREL. Photo by Dennis Schroeder

As July marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), an energy revolution is sweeping the nation, creating new opportunities for American workers, driving innovation, and ensuring U.S. energy security. The laboratory is poised to lead America into the future—for the next 40 years and beyond.

Working with partners in industry and academia, NREL delivers the scientific building blocks for new energy technologies that drive the country's economic growth. NREL's world-class researchers, facilities, tools, and analysis yield innovations that create new business opportunities and greatly reduce the risk of investment for energy companies and manufacturers.

Building on decades of work and ongoing advanced-energy research, today's NREL tackles a range of energy challenges with an integrated approach. It seeks ways to strengthen the U.S. manufacturing sector through on-site production of wind turbines and continues to enhance the solar technologies industry with disruptive innovation. NREL partners with utilities to help to secure the nation's energy grid and is leading teams that develop cost-competitive, domestically sourced products like ammonia for fertilizer, ethylene for plastics, and acrylonitrile for carbon fiber. The laboratory stands at the forefront of integrating biomass into the nation's petroleum infrastructure.

NREL's longstanding mission is reaping benefits. The laboratory gives U.S. entrepreneurs a competitive edge in the global energy race by bridging the gap from concept to market. In fact, NREL is the only national laboratory that regularly links research and development (R&D) with real-world applications.

"We continually look forward," said Martin Keller, who joined the Colorado laboratory as its ninth director in November 2015. "Our leading-edge research is informed by world-class analysis that reveals gaps in technology and market needs. This innovative approach delivers value to American industries and creates economic opportunity for the nation in the form of energy security and prosperity."

Looking to the Sun for New Forms of Energy

A square of perovskite crystal luminesces from a light being directed at in an NREL laboratory.

NREL researchers David Moore and Obadiah Reid are producing perovskite crystals like this one, illuminated in their laboratory at NREL's Solar Energy Research Facility. Photo by Dennis Schroeder

A square of perovskite crystal luminesces from a light being directed at in an NREL laboratory.

NREL researchers David Moore and Obadiah Reid are producing perovskite crystals like this one, illuminated in their laboratory at NREL's Solar Energy Research Facility. Photo by Dennis Schroeder

The early 1970s witnessed long lines and high prices at gas stations—the result of an embargo that dramatically shrank the amount of oil imported by the United States. Three months after his 1977 inauguration, President Jimmy Carter announced his intention to reduce dependence on foreign oil and invest in alternative energy sources. He created the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) with the mission to launch a new American energy industry and he consolidated oversight of U.S. energy policy into the newly formed U.S. Department of Energy.

While early work at SERI concentrated on solar technologies, the focus quickly broadened to include many forms of advanced energy, including wind and biomass. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush elevated SERI to a member of the DOE's national laboratory system and changed its name to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Decades after Carter began his push for solar, renewables provided more than 60% of new U.S. generating capacity last year. DOE estimates that energy and energy-efficiency work employs nearly half a million Americans today, much of this growth is fueled by advanced energy technologies such as wind and solar. The nascent solar industry that NREL helped get off the ground in 1977 now employs 73,000 Americans, and its hiring rates are outpacing U.S. economic growth by up to 17 times. With a steadily increasing amount of solar power added annually and a single gigawatt (GW) having the ability to power 700,000 homes for a year, the nation is expected to produce 330 GW of electricity from photovoltaics (PV) by 2030—more than enough to serve the nation's 126 million households.

"PV is now a business," said Greg Wilson, co-director of the National Center for Photovoltaics at NREL. He joined the laboratory in 2011 after spending almost 25 years in industry. "One can argue that PV is growing at such a rate that it's on its way to becoming mankind's largest enterprise in the next decade."

Two factors drive the adoption of solar power: PV system price (how much it costs to generate each watt of electricity), and efficiency (how good a job a panel does at converting sunlight into that electricity) which ultimately impacts system price and makes some PV technologies more value when space is limited. Advanced research at NREL could disrupt the global solar market as the laboratory explores PV absorber materials beyond silicon, as well as new device designs and processing techniques that can further improve both the cost and performance of silicon cells.

Looking for New Materials to Capture Energy

Perovskites, for example, stand out as a promising path to low-cost, high-efficiency solar panels. The crystalline material, lighter and thinner than silicon and easier to produce, has astounded researchers with its rapidly improving efficiency. Since scientists began studying perovskites in 2009, efficiency has soared to 22% from slightly less than 4%, but challenges remain before perovskite solar panels reach the marketplace.

"We have very high efficiencies but the cells are not yet stable enough," said Jao van de Lagemaat, director of NREL's Chemistry and Nanoscience Center. "However, research at NREL and across the world is driving the technology to be far more reliable."

Perovskites also could help wrest some of the solar market from China, where a silicon supply chain exists that's lacking in the United States. Perovskite solar cells could be applied to a flexible roll of film similar to how newspaper is printed, skipping the costly manufacturing process silicon panels require.

"To really disrupt a maturing market you have to be really different and offer something that totally changes all assumptions," van de Lagemaat said.

Another potential game-changer developed through NREL research is a carbon nanotube thin film with the potential to act as a thermoelectric power generator that captures and uses waste heat. More than half of the energy consumed worldwide is rejected primarily as waste heat, so a path to recapture some of that lost energy is emerging as important research. The lightweight, flexible film could be used to recharge portable wireless devices, or could even be woven into fabrics, allowing wearers to generate power simply by moving around.

Preparing for the Modern Electrical Grid

The electrification of the United States stands out as the single greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. For the 21st century, however, there's more work to be done. Major efforts to improve the security of the electrical grid are underway at NREL.

The grid is starting to evolve as electricity generation sources become more diverse. For more than a hundred years, utilities have mostly relied on large power plants (fueled by coal, nuclear, or natural gas) to supply the country's electricity needs. Today, the amount of advanced energy from sources such as wind and solar is growing rapidly, accounting for 64% of U.S. electricity capacity additions in 2015.

Wind turbines and solar panels are very different from traditional power plants because they do not produce power all the time, but utilities still must ensure electricity is always available.  As a result, the grid must become more flexible and collect more data—it must become smarter.

Research into how these devices—and energy sources—can be connected to the grid happens at NREL's Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF). Laboratories within the ESIF connect to a megawatt-scale microgrid to determine how everything would communicate and work together. NREL's grid modernization efforts ensure security and reliability, and a resilient way to efficiently power homes and communities.

A grid in which utilities and devices communicate opens the door to cybersecurity threats, however. Natural disasters, which can trigger power outages, are already testing the grid—but hackers pose an unpredictable risk as well. NREL research aimed at thwarting hackers goes so far as developing technology to cloak the network from unauthorized users.

Photo shows attendees looking at the new CoMET facility at the National Wind Technology Center.

Attendees get a closer look at a wind blade in the new CoMET facility at NREL’s NWTC. The 10,000-square-foot facility will be used to develop innovative wind turbine components and will serve as a workforce development resource for the growing U.S. composites manufacturing industry. Photo by Dennis Schroeder

Opportunities for Local Manufacturing

Wind is surpassed only by hydropower when it comes to the percentage of electricity generated by renewable sources in the United States. A gap exists, however, in where wind turbines can be found. The southeastern part of the country lacks turbines, but new NREL research could increase their presence there and elsewhere by overcoming manufacturing and transportation challenges. As turbine manufacturers build bigger and bigger blades, getting them to the installation site becomes more difficult.

"When I joined the wind industry in 1995, we were still producing 9-meter blades," said Derek Berry, senior wind technology engineer at NREL. "You could put about 27 of them on a truck and ship them wherever we wanted to. Eventually we started manufacturing 20- and 30-meter blades and we were still able to ship them without much trouble. As we began producing wind turbine blades that were 50 meters and longer, we encountered increasing obstacles in transporting these massive structures."

The solution may be in manufacturing blades at the installation site, using lessons to be learned at the Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology (CoMET) facility, which opened in February at NREL's National Wind Technology Center (NWTC). The longer the blade, the more energy a turbine can capture and the less it costs to generate electricity. But long blades must be lightweight. Various composite materials and manufacturing processes will be evaluated at the new center to determine what might work the best, from balsa wood and fabric to carbon fiber and resins. Researchers using the CoMET facility will be able to design, fabricate and validate prototype blades.

The ability to build turbines on-site will only increase the number of jobs in an industry that already employs more than 100,000 people. In addition to manufacturing jobs, the number of turbine technicians is expected to more than double over the next decade. By 2030, as many as 380,000 people could be working in the wind industry nationwide—including areas ranging from the southeast up through mid-America.

Creating a Market in the Heartland

Biomass is currently the greatest single source of renewable energy in the United States representing 3.9 quadrillion British thermal units in 2015. And, according to DOE, there are more than 156 million acres of agricultural waste produced by our nation's farms. These non-food crop residues—corn stover, cereal straws, and sorghum stubble—can be used to build an industry for the production, manufacture, and distribution of fuels, chemicals, and other products across the country.

Questions remain about how to mobilize these resources. NREL's bioenergy R&D touches every point along the biomass conversion process, from basic science to mobilizing resources through transferring technology to industry. Work on microbes and enzymes has helped reduce the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol by 67%. NREL's thermochemical and biochemical pilot plants have provided scale-up test beds to perfect conversion processes. Such technology has played a significant role in helping DuPont and POET open cellulosic ethanol biorefineries in Emmetsburg and Nevada, Iowa.

Today, NREL is adding capabilities to produce domestically sourced drop-in hydrocarbons that are compatible with petroleum infrastructure, as well as high-value, cost-competitive, bio-based chemicals and materials that reduce carbon demand.

Ethylene for plastics is an example of NREL's innovative research in bio-based chemicals. Made most often from petroleum and natural gas, ethylene is used in the manufacture of plastics and polyester, and ranks as the most-produced chemical by volume in the world. But the process of making ethylene requires considerable amounts of energy and releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

"We envision some farms in the field that cover many acres," said Jianping Yu, a research scientist in NREL's Photobiology group. "We will have cyanobacteria harvesting sunlight and CO2 and then producing ethylene or ethylene derivatives. That's pretty far from where we are now, but that's the goal. If things work out, 10 years from now we should see some farms making petrochemical replacements."

Photo of a man holding a beaker of green liquid and a petri dish with green growth.

NREL scientist Jianping Yu holds cyanobacteria cultures being grown in his laboratory. He is working to cultivate various genetic strains to promote ethylene production. Photo by Dennis Schroeder

NREL Leads America's Advanced Energy Future

For 40 years, NREL has expanded American prosperity and security through world-class research. The laboratory's work stimulates the U.S. economy, inspires ingenuity, and preserves our nation's energy security.

"Innovation leads to job creation and economic growth," Keller said. "We are increasing our attention on science that has market-relevant potential. We are expanding our pursuit of new techniques in advanced manufacturing and advanced materials. And, we are focusing our energy systems integration efforts to design advanced meters, inverters, sensors, and controls for a future grid that is agile and responsive."

Regarding the future, Keller says: "We at NREL, along with our partners in industry and academia, intend to keep pushing forward to produce innovative ideas that will help meet the country's energy needs."

March 15, 2017

A woman works on a computer with an electric control panel in a laboratory setting.

NREL engineer Bethany Sparn remotely accesses data from a circuit breaker panel using a device developed by Whisker Labs in the NREL Systems Performance Laboratory. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL/41582

When researchers at the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) helped install a peel-and-stick energy-metering system in a Wells Fargo branch bank, they weren't sure exactly what they would learn.

After all, the system from Whisker Labs—an Oakland, California, startup—was the first "beta-ready" technology to emerge from the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2). As part of the five-year, $10 million program, select companies that have successfully met technical project-based milestones in the laboratory have the opportunity to test and demonstrate their products in a real-world environment within Wells Fargo's commercial real estate portfolio. The June 22 pilot installation at a branch in Aurora, Colorado, was designed to allow NREL to evaluate technology performance and demonstrate the benefit of this less-invasive submetering system in a commercial building.

"We wanted to see how it performed under real-world load profiles versus how it did in the lab, a unique opportunity as part of the IN2 program," said Meghan Bader, a program manager with NREL's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center.

In the midst of the beta demonstration, Earth Networks announced on December 5, 2016 that it had acquired the startup. The company, which operates the world's largest weather observation networks, will create a new division for the energy-sensing hardware and software infrastructure.

"Our breakthrough device and software platform unlocks the full potential of a smart home by collecting and analyzing health intelligence data from both legacy 'unconnected' appliances and optimizing newer 'connected' appliances and devices," said Bob Marshall, chief executive officer of Earth Networks, based in Germantown, Maryland.

The successful exit affirms the purpose and value of the incubator.

"Through the IN2 program we were able to successfully test the technology within the NREL Systems Performance Lab," said Richard Adams, director of NREL's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. "Using NREL's laboratory, we were able to characterize the performance of the 'stick-on' power meters with typical appliance loads. The accuracy of the measurements relative to reference meters indicates potential suitability to applications such as measurement and verification, as well as fault detection and diagnostics of building equipment."

An electric panel with a small, boxy device attached to it by wires.

The Whisker Labs device was tested at NREL’s Systems Performance Laboratory. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL/41583

An electric panel with a small, boxy device attached to it by wires.

The Whisker Labs device was tested at NREL’s Systems Performance Laboratory. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL/41583

IN2 Fostering Early-Stage Building Tech

Launched in 2014, IN2 is funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation and co-administered by NREL. The initiative fosters and accelerates early-stage commercial building technologies; Whisker Labs was among the first selected for the program.

The Whisker Labs meter was a good fit because existing submetering systems use direct measurement, which requires the installation of current transformers (CTs) and voltage sensors. They are much more costly than Whisker Labs' indirect sensors and also require skilled technicians to install and monitor them. By comparison, Bader said, "a lay person can install the Whisker technology," simply by applying it to the outside of a circuit breaker.

Steve Frank, an NREL commercial buildings engineer, was part of the team that worked with Whisker Labs in the Systems Performance Laboratory prior to the beta deployment. He has been impressed with the progress of the device. "It's what you want to see in IN2, when something goes from lab testing prototype phase to the field testing phase as the company improves its product," Frank said.

Speed and Ease of Installation

Once in place, the sensor indirectly measures voltage and current by monitoring the electric and magnetic fields around a circuit breaker. The system then uses a proprietary computation to determine what the power is within the circuit breaker. It accomplishes all of this through the tiny, stick-on sensor connected to a hub that, in turn, connects wirelessly to the internet.

As a demonstration of the speed and ease of installing this new technology, Frank and others placed the sensors before conventional submeters were installed in the Aurora branch facility. The time saved was significant. Even including training for half a dozen people, the team was able to cover 34 breakers in the panel with sensors in 30 minutes.

In contrast, it took a licensed electrician more than three hours—working in the dark with flashlights because electricity had to be shut off—to install conventional submeters with CTs for only nine breakers. During that time, there were disruptions at the bank, including the fact that the cleaning staff couldn't complete their normal duties.

While both meters measure voltage and current—which helps determine a building's power consumption—there are trade-offs between the stick-on sensors and standard meters. Standard meters use direct measurement and, therefore, are more accurate and less susceptible to electromagnetic interference. Still, the Whisker sensors can provide valuable data.

"You have a qualitative idea of what is happening in all of the individual circuits," Frank said. "This is very useful for doing things like fault detection, optimizing schedules, checking that control set-points are working as intended—such as seeing things like lights dimming or fans going on—and that power usage is going down."

The demonstration is ongoing. "We have been able to test the sensors with some typical continuous commissioning tasks such as verifying proper lighting controls and holiday schedules," Frank said. Further analysis of the data is pending.

A close-up photo of hands attaching a wire to a circuit box.

A worker installs a device as part of a test in a Wells Fargo branch bank in Aurora, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Whisker Labs

The Future of Whisker Labs

Ultimately, Whisker Labs' peel-and-stick technology could reduce energy-metering costs by 90% in commercial buildings—as well as the next-generation connected home. The information collected through the sensors and the company's data-management system can also be used by third-party energy information systems, which will provide building owners with insight into energy consumption and enable cost-effective energy savings.

According to Earth Networks, the new home energy monitoring device will be available to business partners such as utilities, solar and energy companies, home automation providers, and insurance companies in early 2017. It will be made available to consumers later in 2017.

The company said that a home intelligence platform will be affordable and easy-to-install, allowing users to affix a sensor to an electrical panel or breaker box for real-time measurement of appliance power consumption. Whisker will also provide insights into energy use and health of each home appliance through a mobile app.

"Today, every appliance and every device in the home is connected to the power network. The problem is, that network is not accessible and the power data it holds is locked. We are excited to open this power network and connect it to the internet through one simple device," Marshall said.

Frank and the NREL researchers are also pleased with the insights the technology can provide.

"This offers a high degree of visibility into what's happening inside a building's electrical system at a very low cost point with minimal time investment," said Frank. And through ongoing efforts, NREL is positioned to help gather information for further improvements and potential breakthroughs.

Learn more about innovation and entrepreneurship at NREL.

—Ernie Tucker

Vancouver, Canada, Sept. 20, 2016 – Schneider Electric, the global specialist in energy management and automation, has announced Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) will fund the commercialization of its Smart Energy Storage Solution (SmartESS) inverter.

The contract with SDTC, an arm’s-length foundation of the Government of Canada, for the development of clean technologies solutions, will enable Schneider Electric to develop SmartESS inverter solutions in the T’Sou-ke First Nation, a native community located on the south shore of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

“T’Sou-ke Nation welcomes the opportunity to partner with Schneider Electric to continue to develop the role of solar power in bringing sustainable energy solutions to ‘on’ and ‘off-grid’ First Nation communities, as well as to our wider society,” said T’Sou-ke First Nation Chief, Gordon Planes.

The SmartESS platform is a transformerless, all-in-one, wall-mounted inverter combining a hybrid battery and solar photovoltaic (PV) inverter. This project will create a connected and integrated solution that provides increased performance, reliability, and simplicity at a cost lower than existing solutions. For this project, Schneider Electric, with consortium partner Rainforest Automation, will provide the cloud connectivity and energy management to the SmartESS to demonstrate it as part of project. It is ideal for T’Sou-ke First Nation because it has been designed to address the power and energy needs of residences, small commercial businesses, off-grid communities and energy service providers.

“The decentralization, decarbonization and digitization of our grid requires us to make greater investments in innovative solutions that can help meet the world’s energy challenge. We believe the development of our SmartESS inverter will be critical to advancing solar development in Canada and sustainability for future generations,” said Xavier Datin, Vice President of Solar Off-grid and Residential at Schneider Electric. “The grant from the SDTC will allow us to bring a reliable, powerful and environmentally safe energy solution to an area where it would otherwise not be available. Their commitment to spur the development and demonstration of innovative, clean technologies, such as the SmartESS solution, in these rural areas will benefit us all as global citizens.”

“Sustainable Development Technology Canada is very proud to support the commercialization of Schneider Electric’s innovative technology,” said Leah Lawrence, SDTC President and Chief Executive Officer. “This project will create green jobs for the local economy, increase efficiency in the sector and provide economic and environmental benefits for all Canadians.”

The grant builds on Schneider Electric’s commitment to driving innovation in the solar power industry and to developing sustainable energy solutions to ensure everyone around the globe has access to affordable, reliable and efficient energy. For more information about Schneider Electric’s innovative solar solutions, please visit

About Schneider Electric

Schneider Electric is the global specialist in energy management and automation. With revenues of ~€27 billion in FY2015, our 160,000+ employees serve customers in over 100 countries, helping them to manage their energy and process in ways that are safe, reliable, efficient and sustainable. From the simplest of switches to complex operational systems, our technology, software and services improve the way our customers manage and automate their operations. Our connected technologies reshape industries, transform cities and enrich lives. At Schneider Electric, we call this Life Is On.

Discover Life is On

About SDTC

Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) is an arm’s-length foundation created by the Government of Canada to support innovative and entrepreneurial clean technology projects. Our portfolio of companies develop and demonstrate new technologies that address issues related to climate change, air quality, clean water and soil.

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Schneider Electric Sees U.S. as a Growth Market for Utility-Scale Solar Projects

Posted on: | Posted in: Training and Events.

Along with innovations in solar technology, we placed a strong focus on the growth of the U.S. utility-scale market at this year’s Solar Power International (SPI) in Las Vegas, Nevada. SPI is the largest solar show in North America, with a 20% increase in overall attendance in 2016.

The U.S. continues to be one of the biggest markets for utility-scale solar projects, boosted by multi-year extension of Federal ITC and various state level policies and legislation. With approximately 36 GW expected to be installed in the next five years, utility-scale solar power generation has become a critical element of U.S. power generation infrastructure.

The U.S. is also expected to be the first major market to adopt 1500-volt technology, helping to further optimize the Levelized Cost of Energy from solar. At SPI we completed the U.S. launch of the Conext SmartGen, a cloud-connected 1500-volt utility-scale power conversion system for PV and energy storage applications. By combining the best in power electronics design with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and data analytics technologies, the Conext SmartGen reduces power plant operating expenses and at the same time increases system availability and total power generation.

With proven expertise in energy management, solar, and storage, we are focused on delivering bankable technology solutions for safe, reliable, and sustainable power generation.  We look forward to continuing this discussion with our customers at Energy Storage North America 2016 at booth 520 in San Diego from October 4-6.