Top 20 NREL Stories of 2020

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National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers and staff reached countless goals and achieved numerous successes in science, partnerships, and technology commercialization in 2020, from breaking world records to launching new initiatives. Here are just a few of the highlights. Click on each headline to read more.

1. Declining Renewable Costs Drive Focus on Energy Storage

January 2

An oft-repeated refrain—the sun does not always shine, is sometimes seen as an impediment to renewable energy. But it is also an impetus toward discovering the best ways to store that energy until it is needed.

2. How NREL Is Fanning the Sparks of Innovation

January 28

During fiscal year 2019, NREL filed a record 124 patent applications and counted a record 233 disclosures—a category that includes 161 records of invention and 72 software records.

A researcher works with scientific equipment in a lab
NREL scientist Kirstin Alberi uses a compound semiconductor molecular beam epitaxy system to grow semiconductor samples. Alberi’s work involved coming up with a better way to make amber LEDs. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

3. Co-Optima Leads High-Speed Chase for Co-Optimization of Fuels and Turbocharged Spark-Ignition Engines

March 30

A new report summarizes findings from the first phase of the Co-Optimization of Fuels & Engines initiative, which focused on turbocharged spark-ignition engines for light-duty vehicles, identifying the fuel properties and engine parameters that mitigate knock and emissions, while maximizing efficiency and performance.

4. NREL Six-Junction Solar Cell Sets Two World Records for Efficiency

April 13

Scientists at NREL fabricated a six-junction solar cell that now holds the world record for the highest solar conversion efficiency at 47.1%, which was measured under concentrated illumination. A variation of the same cell also set the efficiency record under one-sun illumination at 39.2%.

Researchers assemble a recyclable wind turbine blade
Reduce, reuse, recycle: NREL researchers are building a recyclable wind turbine blade, thanks to thermoplastic resins. Photo by Samantha Rooney, NREL

5. Greening Industry: Building Recyclable, Next-Generation Turbine Blades

April 21

NREL’s pioneering thermoplastics work is helping close the circle, ensuring today’s blades become tomorrow’s blades, too.

6. 50th Anniversary of Earth Day Puts NREL Research in Focus

April 22

Five decades ago, an idea sprouted into an event that grew into a movement, which we now recognize as Earth Day—a global day of awareness and a celebration of principle, responsibility, and sustainability. NREL’s second director, Denis Hayes, played a key role in its creation, coordinating the first Earth Day in 1970.

7. Blockchain: Not Just for Bitcoin

May 14

A common vision for the future of the nation’s energy grid involves homeowners selling unused power generated from rooftop solar panels to others in their communities and working together to help ensure the reliability, resiliency, and security of the power grid everyone uses. But how can the grid manage such complex energy transactions at scale? Several emerging solutions rely on blockchain technology.

8. Inertia and the Power Grid: A Guide Without the Spin

May 28

A new video and report explain the historical role of inertia in maintaining a reliable power system—and how that role is changing as the grid evolves.https://www.youtube.com/embed/b9JN7kj1tso?enablejsapi=1&origin=https:%2F%2Fwww.nrel.gov

Watch this explainer video to learn about inertia’s role in maintaining a reliable power grid and how reliability can still be maintained on future grids with more wind and solar—and thus less inertia. Text version

9. NREL, CCHRC Combine Forces to Increase Research in Arctic Region

June 8

NREL is growing its mission space through an expanded collaboration with Alaska’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC), based in Fairbanks, Alaska. CCHRC has 20 years of experience designing energy efficient, healthy, culturally appropriate homes in some of the harshest conditions on Earth.

10. Scientific Collaboration Buoys Future of Offshore Wind

June 10

Offshore wind, with its potential for domestic electricity-generating capacity of more than 2,000 gigawatts, could supply enough electricity to meet the needs of the entire United States twice over. NREL researchers are working with partners to make reliable, affordable, and accessible offshore wind energy a reality.

11. From Safer Space Travel to Improved Fisheries Monitoring: Wave Energy Modeling Tool Helps Design Tomorrow’s Tech

June 16

NASA is using WEC-Sim (Wave Energy Converter Simulator), an open-source code developed by NREL and Sandia National Laboratories, to ensure NASA’s Orion Crew Module uprights and remains upright upon landing in the ocean.

A space crew module floating in the ocean
NASA’s Orion team completed four successful tests of the Orion Crew Module Uprighting System off the coast of Morehead, North Carolina, in March 2019. Photo by Josh Valcarcel, NASA

12. NREL Cleans Up with FY19 Technology Commercialization Fund Awards

June 26

This year, DOE funded 21 NREL submissions—worth more than a total $6.8 million—through its Technology Commercialization Fund, accounting for 25% of all funded projects, more than any other DOE national laboratory and improving upon NREL’s 2018 total of 16.

13. NREL Acts as Local Economic Stabilizer while Transforming Energy Around the World

July 7

Located in Jefferson County, Colorado, which is part of metropolitan Denver, NREL has seen its economic impact on the county climb by more than 218% during the seven-year span from fiscal year 2012 to fiscal 2019.

Aerial photo of the NREL Campus at South Table Mountain
Research performed at NREL, including at its South Table Mountain Campus (shown here) has a significant economic impact on the local Colorado community and beyond. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

14. Machine Learning Approach Produces 50X Higher-Resolution Climate Data

July 7

Researchers at NREL have developed a novel machine learning approach to quickly enhance the resolution of wind velocity data by 50 times and solar irradiance data by 25 times—an enhancement that has never been achieved before with climate data.

15. ARIES and RAIL Promise To Advance Renewable Energy Innovation and Integration

August 13

Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette introduced two new acronyms to NREL’s lexicon: RAIL and ARIES. RAIL stands for Research and Innovation Laboratory, while ARIES is short for Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems.

A researcher standing at a large visualization screen speaks to two seated people viewing.
In the Cyber Lab of NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility, Juan Torres, NREL Associate Laboratory Director for Energy Systems Integration (center), briefs Dan Brouillette, U.S. Secretary of Energy (right), and Cory Gardner, U.S. Senator for Colorado (left), on the newly launched Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) platform. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

16. NREL, ExxonMobil Teams Imagine, Research New Solutions for Tomorrow’s Energy Challenges

August 18

A year into their unique collaboration, NREL and ExxonMobil are navigating a multi-pronged effort toward a future where clean-burning biofuels replace some petroleum-based fuels.

17. R&D 100 Awards Honor Six NREL Innovations

October 2

R&D World magazine presented NREL with four of its annual R&D 100 Awards for research innovations. In addition to the R&D 100 winners, two additional NREL technologies were given Special Recognition Awards for being “market disruptors.”

18. NREL To Lead New Lab Consortium To Enable Low-Cost Electrolyzers for Hydrogen Production

October 8

The H2NEW consortium will conduct research and development to enable large-scale manufacturing of affordable electrolyzers that use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

19. BOTTLE Consortium Launches To Change the Way We Recycle

October 20

The BOTTLE consortium will focus on two critical problems that are both essential to tackle the plastics pollution problem. The first challenge is how to upcycle today’s waste plastics in a way that incentivizes their reclamation. The second undertakes the challenge of wholly redesigning tomorrow’s plastics to be recyclable-by-design.

A researcher works with scientific equipment in a lab
NREL researcher Robin Cywar purifies a catalyst with a sublimation to use in polymerizations for recyclable nylon materials. She is working with Gregg Beckham’s plastics group on the redesign of nylon polyamide polymers so they can be chemically recycled with more efficient and less energy intensive processes. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

20. Wells Fargo Invests $20M To Extend Highly Successful IN2 Incubator Program Through 2024

December 1

Now in its seventh year, the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) is now a $50 million program, designed from the start to consider a diverse cross section of start-ups, collect them into cohorts, connect them with technological expertise, and accelerate their clean technologies to the marketplace.


The above accomplishments are only a snapshot of all the amazing research and collaboration taking place each day at NREL. Visit our News webpage to discover more ways that NREL researchers are advancing the science, development, commercialization, and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

Thank you to all who helped shape 2020 into a successful year for renewable energy! We are excited to continue transforming energy in 2021 and beyond.

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