November 1, 2016

Energy Career Trek 2016 student blog: Visiting National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

During Fall Break of the 2016-17 school year, the Nicholas School Energy Club sent fifteen graduate students from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Pratt School of Engineering and Fuqua School of Business to Denver, Colorado, as part of the club's annual Career Trek. Coordinated by Master of Environmental Management (MEM) students Leah Louis-Prescott and Eleanor Johnstone, the event was supported in part by the Duke University Energy Initiative.

Below is a student's account of one of the eight companies and agencies included on the trek. Read the others.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

By Elihu Dietz
Master of Environmental Management Candidate

If you're interested in energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is your Wonka chocolate factory. As part of the Energy Career Trek, I had the chance to tour the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden (ticket?), Colorado.

Funded through the Department of Energy, NREL is the nation's primary research laboratory devoted to renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. I knew it as a bottomless, free resource for white papers on renewables research. But it's much more active than that. NREL actually partners with industry to work on issues like improving wind turbine drivetrains and interconnecting high concentrations of distributed solar generation.

NREL's campus is expansive, with signs of energy technology everywhere: the parking lots and most of the buildings are decked with solar panels, the garage is dotted with charging stations for electric vehicles, and there are energy monitors in the lobby showing real-time consumption and production levels of the campus. No surprise, but the energy hogs are hot water and Peregrine, the on-site, liquid-cooled super computer.

Our group was taken on a tour through the Energy Systems Integration Facility by Danelle Wilder and Chris Webber, who emphasized all the work that NREL researchers did with private partners. Businesses like SolarCity, Ford,and Google have collaborated with NREL using non-disclosure agreements to encourage a free exchange of ideas between the two organizations.

And these partnerships can take many forms. In the most exciting part of the tour, we had the chance to walk into NREL's virtual reality, 3D model. In one demonstration, students watched how air molecules move around in a vehicle, as a function of where the air was released. Inefficient heating and air conditioning systems can have big impacts on a vehicle's range. The model was built for vehicle manufacturers working on improving the miles per charge of their electric vehicles. This model gave manufacturers a way of visualizing air-flow to improve driving efficiency and climate control features.

Wind and solar power get a lot of attention. But NREL helped me understand that renewable generation and energy efficiency solutions are everywhere. Since even tiny improvements to the grid or appliance efficiency, for instance, would save huge amounts of money (and carbon), NREL's research is all about the details.

The Career Trek brought us to a range of energy companies, from a major utility, to an energy efficiency consulting group. As our first stop, NREL was an inspiring introduction to the energy career landscape.    

Read about the next stop on the Career Trek: McKinstry.

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