If you’ve started the process of learning about solar or other renewable energy sources to power your business or public organization, you’ve probably run across an organization called the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). But what is it? What does it do? Is the renewable energy research trustworthy? Valid questions. And to help you answer them, here’s a little background on NREL.
What is NREL?
NREL is a U.S. government-owned laboratory that focuses on renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. Funded by the United States Department of Energy (but run by private contractors), NREL started out in 1977 as the Solar Energy Research Institute. It has since expanded its research and industry support to include all forms of renewable electricity (including solar and wind), renewable fuels (including bioenergy), integrated energy systems, strategic energy analysis and technology deployment.
NREL is currently running 13 research programs, participating in 749 active industry partnerships and publishing more than 1,000 scientific and technical materials annually.
NREL and solar power
NREL’s Solar Research Program focuses on two kinds of solar technology: photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal research. PV is the primary form of solar technology in use today. NREL oversees the National Center for Photovoltaics (NCPV), the nation’s premier research facility for PV. And per the NREL web site, NCPV works “to advance the state of the art across the full spectrum of photovoltaic research and development.” NCPV scientists and engineers focus their research on the following areas:
- Boosting solar cell conversion efficiencies
- Lowering the cost of solar cells, modules and systems
- Improving the reliability of PV components and systems
Photovoltaic research and development (R&D) includes solar energy theory and modeling, solar cell materials and construction, device design, measurements and characterization, and reliability testing and engineering. In addition, NREL research extends to exploring the engineering challenges associated with integrating PV technologies into the existing electricity distribution grid.
NREL works alone or partners with universities and solar companies to improve clean technologies and invent new solutions. NREL then licenses its inventions out to the private sector. This helps everyone by reducing the risks and costs that are often incurred when developing new technologies. In addition, any technological advancements can hit the market much more quickly, encouraging broader adoption of renewable energy across the country and helping to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign energy sources. This balance of public and private interest means everyone benefits.
Solar market research and analysis
NREL also focuses on solar market research and analysis, which is of particular interest to those looking at commercial applications of solar energy. Its researchers dive deeply into topics that include:
- Solar market and manufacturing cost analyses
- Sustainable and low-impact solar deployment
- Solar operations and maintenance (O&M)
- Demand charges and battery energy storage
- Installer pricing comparisons
The website states an overarching goal to “further solar technologies’ role in supporting a more efficient and better performing U.S. electricity system.”
To keep up with the latest news and unbiased reporting on the U.S. solar market, you can subscribe to NREL’s Solar Market Research and Analysis Email Updates to receive information about the organization’s publications, resources and events.
Services for public entities
NREL provides education and outreach to government agencies and educational institutions, including unbiased information on solar policies and issues for state and local government decision-makers. NREL also provides no-cost solar screenings and implementation assistance for colleges and universities. If you represent a public organization, NREL can be an absolutely indispensable resource to help you navigate the process of choosing the right solar technologies, getting the community’s and your stakeholders’ buy-in and empowering decision-makers to go solar.
NREL does even more, but the main takeaway is that many consider it to be the leading authority on PV solar technology, deployment and market trends in the U.S.—providing industry support, as well as R&D and analysis. NREL can be a useful source of information for learning what you need to know about taking your organization into a clean energy future.