What has the National Renewable Energy Lab done for the public good?

On a hot Tuesday afternoon, Lori Maloney slumps in a lawn chair by her garden, staring at the cars and buses whizzing by on the freshly paved Research Road that the Department of Energy finished constructing this spring. This new two-way street leads to a gated entrance to the campus of the National Renewable Energy Lab, which is in the midst of a massive building project.

See also: Top fifteen inventions and innovations of the National Renewable Energy Lab

The road also goes straight through what was previously the Maloney family's property, right over land once occupied by a 30-by-45-foot garage.

Lori Maloney lost some of her land — and much of her sense of security — to NREL's expansion.
Mark Manger
Lori Maloney lost some of her land — and much of her sense of security — to NREL's expansion.
The Department of Energy's Jeff Baker has been heading the NREL expansion project.
Mark Manger
The Department of Energy's Jeff Baker has been heading the NREL expansion project.
NREL's new, improved campus, made possible by $156.1 million in stimulus funds.
Mark Manger
NREL's new, improved campus, made possible by $156.1 million in stimulus funds.

"I feel like every time somebody's driving by, they're wondering what I'm doing," Maloney says with a sigh. Just a few feet away, a small creek burbles softly; a hundred feet away, the lunch-hour traffic rush continues. "I just feel like I'm on display."

The Maloneys have lived in Pleasant View — a small, unincorporated part of Jefferson County adjacent to the city of Golden — since 1982. The property wasn't visible from nearby thoroughfares, and Lori and her husband, Paul, reached it from a side road. "It was peaceful. It was like we were detached from the city," she remembers. But all that changed after the DOE partnered with Jeffco to build a new route to the national laboratory dedicated to renewable energy. Research Road, which became the Maloneys' address this summer, opens up their property to a new roundabout constructed in conjunction with NREL's new entranceway.

The family gave up close to an acre so that the DOE could build this road; the county used eminent domain, or the threat of eminent domain, to acquire not just their property, but a total of 45,409 square feet of land from other local owners. Officials with NREL — which is owned and funded by the DOE but operated by a private entity called the Alliance for Sustainable Energy LLC — insist that the road is a tiny but vital component of an impressive expansion that will help fuel groundbreaking energy innovations. For 35 years, the lab has been researching solar, wind and other renewable technologies; a new 182,500-square-foot facility slated for completion next month will allow NREL to conduct unprecedented research projects.

But for the Maloneys, that road represents a devastating loss that comes with years of grief tied up in legal battles and construction woes. The permanent changes to their property are so bad that Lori and Paul sometimes question whether they want to stay. And that's not their only question. Eminent domain allows governments to seize land and compensate property owners if the land grab is done for a "public good." But what "public good" has actually come out of this lab over the past three decades?

"All the money that [NREL] got from the Department of Energy to build all this — how much of that actually went back to research and development?" Lori asks, her voice rising above the traffic. "That's been bugging the heck out of me. Their real purpose is supposed to be finding renewable energy sources, right?"

******

On May 3, 1978, President Jimmy Carter came to Golden to dedicate a future federal facility. He started his speech with a joke.

"As a matter of fact, we've not yet made a final decision about where to put the National Solar Energy Research Institute. I'm going around to visit several prospective sites to see where the sun is actually shining," the president said, prompting laughter from the audience.

"The wind's blowing," a bystander interjected.

"That's right. The wind is blowing," the president responded. "So that's enough. You qualify."

And wind wasn't Colorado's only resource. "I am glad to be here where the sun shines 300 days a year," Carter said as he stood at the future home of SERI, the country's first national laboratory dedicated to solar energy research.

In fact, Carter had announced in March 1977 that the lab would be located in Colorado. In addition to its attractive environment, the state had a governor who was pushing hard for the project, for which nine or ten states were competing. Governor Dick Lamm made winning the lab a top priority of his administration: He assigned a full-time staff member in his office to the effort, made at least two trips to D.C. to tout Colorado, and included a letter in the state's official proposal, submitted in July 1976. "It was a big deal to me," Lamm says today. "It really [showed] that we could put together an economic-development thrust that was first-rate."

Not only would the national lab bring business to the state, but it was for a cause he supported. "I've been convinced since the '60s that it was foolish to rely on foreign oil," Lamm says. "I really was very passionate about alternative energies."

The lab's launch was an important step in the Carter administration's energy plan — and a symbol of the nation's commitment to reducing the country's dependence on fossil fuels. The lab would work with four regional centers around the country to carry out basic research and development and to demonstrate projects in advanced solar technology. "America's hope for energy to sustain economic growth beyond the year 2000 rests in large measure on the development of renewable and essentially inexhaustible sources of energy," Carter said during his dedication speech (which is available through the American Presidency Project). "No matter how good a job of conservation we do, the world's supply of oil and gas will dwindle, become more expensive, and finally run out."

Spending on imported oil had increased from $2.7 billion in 1970 to more than $45 billion in 1977, Carter noted. The creation of SERI was part of "the long, slow job of winning back our economic independence."

Ultimately, a spot on South Table Mountain was chosen for SERI. By 1981, the State of Colorado had donated 300 acres of land to the DOE; by 1984, the facility's first permanent structure, the Field Test Laboratory Building, had been constructed, with 41 different labs.

SERI, like all but one of the other eleven national labs in the DOE's portfolio, was established with a "management and operating contract," which means that while it's owned by the government, it's operated by a private entity through five-year contracts. Today, that entity is the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, which was formed solely for the purpose of managing the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, as SERI was renamed in 1991 to reflect its broader research focus. The Alliance is a partnership of two private companies: Battelle Memorial Institute and MRIGlobal, which played a role in bringing the lab to Colorado. The Alliance's current contract is valued at approximately $1.1 billion over a five-year period, but its structure dates back to the Manhattan Project, which manufactured the two atomic bombs used in World War II. A 2007 DOE document outlining management and operating contracts explains that the production of those bombs was the result of a public-private partnership model that proved efficient and successful.

The partnership in Golden has been successful enough that the lab continues to grow. Before the road project, the DOE acquired additional property on three occasions, eventually expanding NREL to its current size of 328.67 acres on South Table Mountain. (NREL also has a wind-technology site in Boulder that opened in 1993 and now totals 305 acres.) And over the past four years, the DOE has invested more than $400 million in construction at NREL — adding space to pre-existing facilities, expanding on-site infrastructure, creating a new parking garage that fits approximately 1,800 cars, and starting work on the new lab that will be finished next month. In just the last two years, the number of employees on the NREL campus has jumped by a factor of four — from 500 to 2,000 people.

That growth mandated that NREL construct a second entrance, and the DOE persuaded officials in Jefferson County that the main access point on Denver West Boulevard off of 1-70 wasn't enough. America's energy future was dependent on a new road.

******

Chris Artemis remembers the day the president came to Golden to dedicate the Solar Energy Research Institute. "We watched Jimmy Carter drive down the street," says Artemis, who was a teenager at the time. "It was pretty impressive."

Artemis had a unique perspective that day: His family has owned the Columbine Cafe, also known as the Columbine bar, on South Golden Road in Pleasant View, since Prohibition. Even as the neighborhood has changed, the bar has remained a time capsule, with just three booths, three tables, about ten bar chairs with red cushions, and an old-fashioned jukebox by the door. Chris and his 82-year-old father, Harry, run the Columbine with help from Chris's brother Steve and sister Tina.

"It was just interesting that Washington came to Pleasant View," Chris says with a laugh. "And they still haven't left! At that time, it didn't dawn on me that it'd be a national laboratory that would never go away."

But Chris says that he and his family never had any problems with the lab — until the day in 2010 when officials from the DOE and Jeffco came calling and said they'd need a small part of the commercial property for a new entrance; the roundabout would require around 3,300 square feet of land.

"When I first heard about it, I said, 'It's not gonna happen,'" recalls Harry Artemis, whose uncle started the Columbine. "I was upset. So was everybody else."

But as conversations with Jefferson County continued, it became clear that the county was prepared to use the power of eminent domain to acquire the land for NREL. "We can't fight it now, and even if we did, we didn't have enough time," says Steve Artemis, who works at the bar part-time and runs Golden Gymnastics. "With lawyer fees, as a small business, we just don't have that disposable income."

Even worse, Harry's wife was ill when the county told the family about the project. "That's the one thing that just hit really hard," Steve says, noting that Jeffco officials gave the family a month to deal with her illness, but after that said they couldn't wait. "It was a personal thing, and, of course, the project is impersonal."

Ultimately, the two sides were able to reach an agreement for the land without Jeffco resorting to the use of eminent domain. But while the Columbine's interior was preserved, it lost an access point from the main road, which has confused customers. That change, as well as putting up with a year of construction, has cost the bar 30 to 40 percent of its business, Chris and his father say.

Down the street, Sean Maloney first learned of the new road when the former Marine was home from duty in Iraq in December 2009 and saw men in suits carrying blueprints on his parents' property, surveying the area.

"I told them to get the hell out of here," the now-24-year-old remembers. "They had no business being there, and it was the first I'd ever heard of it."

His mother, Lori, called the county, but had trouble even finding out who would be paying for the road. "I'm spitting mad. What do you mean they're putting a road through here?" she remembers telling a Jeffco official, who eventually admitted that the money would come from the DOE and that the project was for NREL.

But under eminent domain, the family ultimately didn't have a choice. And with NREL's construction and expansion already under way, there was pressure not to drag out the process. In fact, court documents from the Maloney family's fight reveal that one of Jefferson County's arguments for "immediate possession" was "to accommodate the NREL expansion and to prevent construction delays."

The family says that the road's construction left lingering problems, including a paved-over leach field that damaged the house's water-drainage system, and missing fences that leave them exposed to trespassers. (The DOE says it has complied with every aspect of the contract the two parties agreed to.) "It was really hard to go through. It's still pretty hard," says Heather Versailles, the 25-year-old daughter of Lori and Paul Maloney, who has a three-year-old son. "I will never be able to offer my son what I thought he could have here. All just because of a freakin' road."

******

To understand why the National Renewable Energy Lab's new road is so important to the Department of Energy, you need to follow that road to the dusty, noisy and massive construction site on South Table Mountain, the future home of a lab that is supposed to propel the world into a cleaner, more energy-efficient economy. The Energy Systems Integration Facility, or ESIF, will be the place were NREL and, by extension, the U.S. government, test out large-scale technologies that could impact whole utility systems.

"For thirty years, we've been developing technologies at some small scale to get them cost-effective and commercially available," says Benjamin Kroposki, NREL's director of energy systems integration, sitting inside a small shack on the ESIF construction site. "The key is really to take it from that step and to make it relevant in the energy system.... [Given] what it really takes [to provide homes with electricity] and what the size of power plants really are, you need a facility of this size to get to that level to make an impact."

When it's completed, the 182,500-square-foot-facility will house around 200 scientists and engineers in fifteen fully outfitted laboratories and several outdoor test areas. The work at ESIF will be as expansive as the building itself, ranging from research on renewable-energy integration to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Researchers and industry partners will come into this lab and do testing at megawatt scales to explore how different innovations could work in a real-life system. These kinds of capabilities reduce risks to companies and are key when businesses are looking at commercializing products. "You can't just have a cheap solar cell," Kroposki explains. "You have to show how it's going to integrate into the bigger picture and how it integrates with the power system as a whole. That's what this facility will really allow us to do."

In other words, if utilities like Xcel Energy can see these technologies demonstrated in a realistic environment inside NREL, they will be encouraged to implement them, resulting in large-scale impacts in savings and increased efficiencies.

And there's a lot of waste in existing utility systems, says Jeff Baker, the DOE's director of laboratory operations in the Golden field office. So improving these systems could constitute a "public good," if you will. "If you help a utility company operate a system more efficiently, those efficiencies are passed along to you," Baker points out.

The total cost of this particular effort is $135 million in congressionally approved funds. And ESIF is just one piece of NREL's recent expansions. "The bottom line is that what's done here today is going to change the world for the better, and our contribution is immensely satisfying," says Baker. "We are incredibly privileged to work at this place and be entrusted with the nation's resources."

******

Government agencies generally try to avoid using eminent domain. It can be a lengthy, expensive process that often ends in bitter legal battles — and bad PR.

But for roadway projects, eminent domain is fairly standard practice. And by some measures, the property fights tied to NREL's new entranceway were relatively mild. No one had to move out of their home or business, as has been the case with some of the more famous David-and-Goliath-like stories of eminent domain across the country.

There is, however, one aspect of this case that stands out.

Jefferson County took on the project on behalf of the DOE and NREL, in a partnership that's very atypical. And the relationship alone raises concerns about what "public good" legally justified the taking.

"The power of eminent domain is one of the great...weapons that the government has. It should be used sparingly," says attorney Dennis Polk, who represented the Maloney family when they attempted to fight Jefferson County. "This one is as close to the line as it could possibly be without completely abdicating the rights of private individuals."

Polk argues that Jeffco effectively "lent" its eminent-domain authority to NREL, which is funded by the federal government but operated privately. He couldn't find any other case in Jeffco where an entity essentially borrowed the county's power for its own project, he says.

And as it turns out, his research was pretty thorough.

Jeanie Rossillon, the director of development and transportation for Jefferson County who oversaw various aspects of this project, confirms that the situation was unique. "The Department of Energy and NREL came to the county and said...,'We know we are going to go through some private property, and we would like the county's assistance in doing that,'" she recalls.

Jeffco uses eminent domain frequently for road projects, but it's not a standard practice to pursue a condemnation on behalf of another entity that pays for the project. "A partnership where they fund it and we're doing the eminent domain — that's unusual," Rossillon says.

Jefferson County, however, argues that the project was in fact a "public good," because it addressed a serious traffic concern, and this was the best possible solution.

Research Road is technically a public road, and the route the county and NREL chose will eventually provide access to a Jeffco Open Space park next to the Maloney property. Since it officially opened, however, the only people actually using it are the Maloneys and NREL employees going to and from work. And while the county owns Research Road, the DOE paid for and oversaw its construction.

"The main public good here is to better handle the traffic that was going to result from the development. The minor one is better access to the park," says Rossillon, who oversees transportation and engineering as well as zoning and planning for the county. "We felt it was a good use of money, whether it was county money or [DOE] money. We just had to convince the judge [that it was a public good], and we did."

They were less successful at convincing some neighbors. When word got out that a road was being built in the area — and that the county was using eminent domain to get some of the property — there was an immediate backlash. Lori Maloney still has a flier that opponents created. "SAVE YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD FROM RUIN," it says. "THE GOVERNMENT AND NEREL [sic] doing whatever they please against the will of the people."

At a September 28, 2010, hearing, resident after resident lobbed complaints at the county commissioners, urging them to vote against the project, which they saw as nothing more than a glorified access road for NREL. But the commissioners approved it.

"The facts are, this campus expanded by a factor of three...and from a safety standpoint, we needed to provide a second access," the DOE's Baker says. "To do that, we needed to work through the community to secure a right of way.... We live in a community that we're very close to. We don't approach this cavalierly.... It was very difficult, but at the same time, it's the nation's business, too...[and] the legal framework provided a good way to resolve ultimately a conflict."

NREL touts its national role, and it also stresses its positive impact on local economic development. A January report from the University of Colorado's Leeds College of Business found that the net benefit of NREL to Colorado's economy grew to $831.3 million in the fiscal year 2011. Of that total, $305 million was in Jefferson County, the study determined. Construction accounted for $69 million in spending alone in 2011, which translated to hundreds of new jobs.

In a key moment at the September 2010 hearing, Jefferson County Commissioner Kathy Hartman asked Jeanne Shaffer, a planner with the county, why Jeffco, rather than NREL, was going to be the applicant in the eminent-domain case.

Because it would be a public road once it was constructed, Shaffer responded.

"Okay, so we are not proposing any actual changes to the National Renewable Energy Lab's property...and they don't actually have to come through this process with us anyway, correct?" asked Hartman.

"Correct," responded Shaffer.

That still makes no sense to Lori Maloney. "I don't know the legal mumbo jumbo," she says. "But Jeffco was the plaintiff, not NREL. NREL paid the bill, but they never got their hands dirty on this project."

******

On a recent Friday afternoon, Ken Salazar, former Colorado senator and current Secretary of the Interior, joins several DOE and NREL officials in a small, air-conditioned van for a short tour of the improved NREL campus. He's scheduled the stop to highlight President Barack Obama's commitment to renewable energy. And it's also a good opportunity for NREL to offer a quick pitch about how the lab is expanding and what it is going to accomplish.

Dan Arvizu, NREL's laboratory director, gestures at buildings around the facility, talking about the progress that the DOE has made over the last year. "So that's the new entrance right there, and that connects Old Golden Road," Arvizu says as the van passes by Research Road. "It's a direct link in...from here all the way to Colfax. That's huge, because we moved almost 1,500 people off campus onto this main campus. Now it's congested unless we have two exits."

To their left is a new parking garage, one designed to receive sunlight and dramatically minimize energy use.

That parking garage is part of what NREL got with the $156.1 million it collected through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The rest of the stimulus funds went to support the expansion of a new "Research Support Facility," a buildout and upgrade of an "Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility," the construction of new technology at NREL's wind center near Boulder...and construction of the new access road.

The total cost of that new road was $6.31 million, which includes all infrastructure costs as well as the new roundabout on South Golden Road.

But this latest round is just a small piece of the facility's financial history. "Lots of the nation's investments actually come flowing through here...and that makes NREL the central point...for all of these technologies," explains Baker, the DOE's director of laboratory operations in Golden, as he shows off the new Research Support Facility.

The RSF, as the building is known, is a groundbreaking structure that the NREL team calls a "net zero energy building": It uses 50 percent less energy than current commercial codes with a wide range of strategies, including solar collectors, day lighting in office spaces, and under-floor ventilation. In the cafeteria, the countertops are made of recycled sunflower seeds; large repurposed natural-gas pipes are integrated into its structure. The RSF shows just what is possible using the best energy-conservation practices, many of which were developed on this very campus.

Since the lab's founding in 1977, Baker estimates, NREL has taken in roughly eight to nine billion dollars (in today's dollars). That's a lot of money, but you need to consider it in the context of energy spending, he suggests: Nine percent of the nation's gross domestic product, or $1.4 trillion a year, is associated with energy. Compared to that figure, the investment in NREL doesn't seem so huge. About 80 percent of NREL's direct funding comes from the DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and the other 20 percent comes from other DOE sources and outside sources.

What has the country gotten for its money?

The basic progress that NREL has made in renewable technology is the most direct and visible indication that the nation and the world is getting an enormous return on this investment, Baker says. From NREL's perspective, the lab's renewable-energy discoveries have dramatically shaped our transportation alternatives and directly provided new options to power homes and businesses.

The cost of wind energy, for example, has declined from 40 cents per kilowatt-hour when the lab was founded to between 6 and 9 cents today, helping wind energy become the fastest-growing source of new electricity in the nation. And the cost of electricity from photovoltaic panels — which convert sunlight directly into electricity — has dropped from several dollars per kilowatt-hour to 18 to 23 cents per kilowatt-hour.

None of these advancements would have happened at this speed — if they had happened at all — if not for the DOE's investments in the laboratory, Baker says. "Look at the size of the industry today," he continues. "When you see billions and billions of dollars of the renewable energy in photovoltaics and wind, then you come back and say, 'Well, where did all that start?' It started here at NREL. It made all those industries possible."

According to NREL lab director Arvizu, in 1977 the cost of gasoline was 62 cents and the cost of a photovoltaic panel was $100 a watt. Since then, there has been a six-fold increase in gas prices and a 25-fold decrease in the cost of photovoltaic panels. This kind of innovation was made possible by NREL, Arvizu says.

But while NREL has undoubtedly played a huge role in some of the fundamental innovations that have brought solar, wind and other technologies to where they are today, where else might they have gone over the past three decades? Ken Zweibel worked at NREL from 1979 to 2006 and was a director of the thin-film photovoltaics partnership there. "My question is how effective these contributions have been in the sense that [most of] these companies themselves haven't necessarily stuck around and really made an impact," Zweibel says.

If you try measuring the success of the lab by the success of private companies that have attempted to commercialize these technologies, the story of NREL becomes a lot more complicated. In fact, just as NREL was preparing to celebrate its 35th anniversary this summer, Colorado got disappointing news about two of the state's major solar companies. One was going to put on hold a large manufacturing plant it had planned for Aurora; the other would be filing for bankruptcy and shutting its doors for good.

******

On a tour of NREL in 2005, Brian Murphy was impressed by the research. "I was just really awestruck by all the neat things the scientists were doing in the lab," he remembers.

Murphy had previously worked in applied films technology, which he saw as a perfect foundation for getting into the solar-panel market. It was clear that NREL had the expertise he needed to develop this technology. But it was also clear to Murphy that the lab could have a greater impact if it partnered much more closely with the private sector. "'Why isn't this stuff getting out to the world so people can take advantage of it? So society can benefit from all this unique technology and...really leading-edge stuff?'" he recalls thinking. "It was very clear that the scientists were very proud and excited with what they were doing. It was also clear that there didn't seem to be a great link to industry." It would be a win-win for Murphy and NREL if they joined together and worked on commercializing solar panels.

But everything did not go as planned.

Murphy and a business partner began working with NREL in 2006 to develop a thin-film panel technology that uses a compound called cadmium telluride. They started building PrimeStar Solar with the help of Zweibel, who ended up leaving NREL to join PrimeStar. The small company seemed on track for a major scale-up when General Electric expressed interest, began buying shares, and eventually bought the startup in full in 2011. GE's plan was to build a solar-panel manufacturing plant in Aurora.

PrimeStar was a major success story for NREL — a shining example of how a small company can partner with the national lab to develop cutting-edge technology, reach commercial success, and even give back to Colorado by bringing new manufacturing jobs to the state. But the story of PrimeStar took an unfortunate turn this summer when GE called in its Colorado employees and announced that about seventy of them would be laid off and that the Aurora plant would be put on hold for at least eighteen months. News of layoffs reached PrimeStar employees the same week that Abound Solar, a Loveland-based solar company that had developed a similar technology, announced it would officially file for bankruptcy, affecting 125 employees.

The backdrop to the bad news at both companies is that the United States is struggling to respond to aggressive pricing competition from China. Simply put, there is an international oversupply of manufacturing capacity in the solar industry, making it impossible for smaller companies in the U.S. to stay afloat.

Even so, GE PrimeStar is continuing to invest in a technology that, immediately after the layoffs were announced, Murphy worried wouldn't be commercially viable even eighteen months from now. "I am clearly disappointed that I see PrimeStar...kind of collapsing," he said at the time.

Different materials are used for photovoltaic solar technologies, including crystalline silicon and thin-film technologies; the latter includes cadmium telluride, which is what PrimeStar has been developing. Because of a major oversupply in crystalline silicon, manufacturers of that technology have been forced to innovate and improve the product to stay competitive. And they have, Murphy says, developing much more cost-effective technologies. A consequence of this, however, is that the competitive advantage of cadmium telluride is not as wide as it was in 2006.

For its part, GE says it's sticking with cadmium telluride and is confident that it can improve the efficiencies of those technologies and successfully manufacture solar panels — in an Aurora plant — sometime in the near future. And Murphy says that he recently heard more promising news from GE and is more confident than he was in July that GE PrimeStar may be able to develop the innovations it needs to stay afloat.

The Obama administration sees no reason to be concerned about the solar industry. "Any time you're dealing with an emerging future on energy, you're always going to have successes and you're going to have setbacks," Ken Salazar responds when asked about GE PrimeStar's plant postponement and Abound's bankruptcy. "And President Obama and I remain very confident that we're moving in the right direction."

In a lengthy statement responding to news of Abound's bankruptcy, DOE spokesman Damien LaVera points out that last year, the global market for renewable energy reached a record $260 billion and that America's solar industry now employs 100,000 workers, doubling since 2009. "In such an intense competition and with the price declining 47 percent last year alone, not every company, nor every investment, will be a success," he says. "But America will be stronger and more competitive if we continue to support and build a thriving solar industry here at home."

Investments in innovative companies always carry risks, LaVera notes, but no matter what, "America must continue playing to win in the clean-energy race."

And will NREL's expansion be a win?

Zweibel puts it this way: "If you develop new technology that reaches technical success but is out-competed by a country that is essentially doing a vertical integration of the whole industry...it means that you don't get anywhere. You develop new technology, but you can't commercialize it."

But no matter the challenges, Murphy still considers NREL's work vital. "If we try and grade and rank them [based on] how many wins versus losses we have, we're missing the big picture of what research and development is slated for," Murphy says. "It's about gaining knowledge."

"Energy is a global market, and manufacturing is a global market, too," says the DOE's Baker. "Our job really is to continue to push the bounds of technology that gives us the edge. It's one thing to have inexpensive labor...[but] we're pushing the bounds of technology to allow the United States to really reap the value of that and maybe neutralize a little bit of that."

That's why in recent years, NREL has shifted priorities to focus on commercialization. "The role of NREL is to work with the private sector," Arvizu says. "Most of the things you see us do these days are in conjunction with market players."

As of this past January, NREL had agreements in place with 448 industry partners, 65 educational partners, 28 nonprofits and 15 government entities. The facility also has more "cooperative research and development agreements" — written contracts between a company and a government agency — than any other DOE laboratory.

And overall, NREL gets a huge return on its investments through its partnerships with private industry, according to the DOE. Baker says that at NREL, $1 of government investment historically has yielded approximately $8 in private investment research. As a result, NREL offers a significant reduction in risk for private industry — and that, DOE officials say, is a key part of why the lab is so important.

To continue to foster these partnerships, NREL just needed more space...and a new road.

******

The challenge that NREL faces in creating commercially successful technologies is not lost on the residents who gave up property for what Jeffco claimed was a public good.

"I'd like to see more industry come out of it," says the Columbine's Chris Artemis. "Apparently, there has been very little. I mean, what the hell is going on up there? I watched SERI go in thirty years ago, and it's sad other countries take the technology."

NREL's own materials tout 35 years of innovation with all kinds of colorful examples of new inventions and projects. One pamphlet presents a range of the lab's work: building batteries, creating hydrogen out of wind, designing robots that can test solar cells, building cheaper air conditioners, creating glassless mirrors to concentrate the sun and even sending solar cells to Mars. But Sean Maloney isn't impressed by the hype.

"I've never heard about anything good coming out of NREL," he says. "I've never heard of any breakthroughs.... I've never heard good PR, and I've lived next door to it all my life.... All I see is they keep taking more and more and building more buildings.

"The public has a right to know what's going on in there."

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23 comments
laurajose2
laurajose2

Cry me a river,  the world changes, get over it.   If you don't like living there any longer,  move. 

idellagarza
idellagarza

I experienced using recs calculator and it was a cool way to learn more about the importance of renewable energy. Companies like them should be supported by us. Let us all admit that we are really having a hard time with the current resources that makes our expenses hurt our pockets.

vinnieu
vinnieu

pixiebabe,

First, I apologize for my earlier lack of empathy toward you, your story and your loss of property to your local governments' exercise of eminent domain. My reaction to the article was largely due to journalistic issues rather than your story. Sadly, our country's beginnings are a result of  "land-grabs" from Native American tribes and continues today supported by  Supreme Court rulings. I strongly support private property ownership rights and deplore seizure of private property through condemnation and EM.  I also strongly support national energy policy that doesn't involve war or polluting our air and water. Unfortunately, as our country's land-space becomes more crowded, these conflicting interests become more commonplace and less palatable.

rwillhite65
rwillhite65

 "I've never heard about anything good coming out of NREL," he says. "I've never heard of any breakthroughs.... I've never heard good PR, and I've lived next door to it all my life.... All I see is they keep taking more and more and building more buildings. The public has a right to know what's going on in there."

 

This person lives within walking distance of NREL, which has a visitor’s center and several open-to-the-public activities every year :-/

vinnieu
vinnieu

No mention in this article of the advancements/contributions toward energy independence in the measurement of public good! How would this person feel if a Wal-Mart was dropped into their neighborhood solely for increased tax revenues. Or drilling for natural gas using fracking?

goldstein
goldstein

Salazar, Obama, Carter, Lamm, Baker, Kroposki:  Statist experts on bribing people with their own money. Residual value in a Federal technology investment is of course never measured in dollars or true innovation for that matter. It is only measured in altruistic intent. They simply buy stuff with your money (jobs, roads, buildings, lab equipment, votes) then measure economic output in terms of how much of your money was spent in your neighborhood. NREL is simply a testament to how well your political leaders and their bureaucrat appointees are extorting you. Those of you touting the virtues of governmental intervention in "clean" technology either work at NREL or can't calculate ROI.

vinnieu
vinnieu

I thought this article would list some of the valuable contributions/advancements NREL has made to renewable energy.  As I  write this, I'm in the early stages of installing solar. This would probably not be possible without the work of NREL!  Lets don't put energy independence on hold cuz somebody doesn't feel secure with NREL's location.  Would they feel better if a coal-fired electrical generation plant landed in their backyard?

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with the author's full name. If you're interested, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

SnarkyBark
SnarkyBark

This article SERIOUSLY underplays the use and abuse of eminent domain.

 

Are people aware that in Kelo v City of New London,  the US Supreme Court rubber stamped the growing trend of governments (from municipal to Federal) to use eminent domain to take property from private individuals to give to other private entities?  So it isn’t just that the govt needs to build a highway and your land is in the middle of it.  If a private entity wants to build a development, and your land is part of the intended site, a govt can use EM to force the sale of your land that will be transferred to another private entity. 

 

Gone are the days when you heard stories about some widow having a skyscraper built around her house b/c she refused to sell to a developer.  Now, the govt will just force you to sell under EM.  That govt entity will receive far more tax revenue, jobs growth, etc from having that development rather than you retaining your property.  And the US Supreme Court has said this is ok. 

 

Don’t believe that the existing statutes (in CO anyway) that purport to limit this type of EM use actually do that.  This has happened over and over again.  The interpretations of “public use” are jokes.  And the CO Supreme Court has gone right along with the USSC.

 

The long and short of the Kelo ruling is that you don’t really own your property.  Any  government entity can come in and force its sale for the most tenuous of reasons.  And consider that Kelo (2005) and a great deal of legislation around the country designed to limit this abuse of EM (not just in CO) was enacted prior to the economic collapse.  You had better believe jurisdictions are more motivated to increase revenue and by any means necessary.

 

All these people around NREL had better prepare for the possibility of losing their land altogether if NREL has further expansion in the future.

traven37
traven37

Honestly, I question Westword's motives with this article.  Especially which quotes they wanted in this article versus those they didn't.  What do I mean?  They specifically tried to grab the hearts of people by getting the "HEARTWRENCHING" stories of the families who lost a little land (which has been vacant / full of weeds and unused for the past 2 years)  And saying "I've never seen or heard anything good coming from NREL..." That is a joke right?

 

How about NREL's 27 Research & Development top 100 awards over the past 12 years?  Where is that mentioned?  Do you wonder why your air coniditioning or heating has gotten better in the last 2 decades?  What about water energy, electric and hybrid vehicles, eletric and hybrid commercial trucks, solar, biofuels (NREL developed one of the catalysts that made E-85 possible on an economic scale), etc. You should know that NREL has something to do with that... What about those things?  Where is NREL mentioned for the real good it has been doing by producing clean energy?  If you expand a laboratory by 1500 employees in the matter of a decade - you HAVE to expand. New buildings need to be established to house those employees, and that serves as a great opportunity to show the world that you can build green!

 

One point of entry and exit is not acceptable for an organization of that nature - in fact it isn't safe.  2,000+ employees is the same as a multinational corporation!  You have to provide proper access and exits for those employees. 

 

Think of it like this: If there was a major accident that blocked the entry/exit onto the campus and firetrucks and ambulances couldn't get to another accident further in the campus wouldn't that be a problem?  -Yes... it'd be a problem.  Maybe that is why city planners work hard to make it possible for multiple ways to detour aroudn things in the event of a problem...

 

As a person who has seen this new road (of which they provide no photos), it isn't like they stole a portion of their lives.  The land was unused and this made very little impact other than a possible property value decrease due to light traffic.  The reason they didn't provide photos was probably because they wanted the words to paint a picture worse than a photo of the realism would've provided.  Its a road people.  Two lanes and 1/4 a mile long, nothing more - nothing less.  And what NREL does completely overshadows a little bit of unused land being seized to better the access and exit abilities of the thosands that work at this facility.

 

One more note before I get off my grandstand should be this: The economic benefit of NREL is outstanding in this state, as read in the article.  It provides nearly 800 million in economic benefit to the state.  If this country is all about jobs and getting the economy back on track, well then i'd silence a little bit of the rhetoric that their broken hearts overshadow the nature of NREL's mission.

 

--JJ - Former NREL employee.

DrAbraxas
DrAbraxas

i don't see what the problem with the road is. a much bigger problem, i imagine, is the county jail that's just 1/4 of a mile to the east of the road.

mary_spencer
mary_spencer

Where is the mention in the article about the PUBLIC ELEMENTARY school affected by this road? I could see taking property for some vital need but not to provide drivers a more convenient way to get to work. What about using the road up next to the park that already had access to roads that connect to Old Golden Road? Are people unable to follow simple directions to find a place? Oh wait, wasn't there some special Frog that would be endangered if they went that route? I am obviously too disgusted by this to process yet. 

maikohiga2
maikohiga2

Sounds like the woman has Ophthalmophobia – fear of being stared at and Scopophobia – fear of being looked at or stared at.

 

NO ONE is staring at you lady!

 

Next time, how about we vote the right people IN to office, all the way from City Counsel all the way to the freaking White House because the ones we have in the county obviously don't care- but this wouldn't have happened without the renewable energy act.  

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

The agreement was not met at all! The construction ventured far off of the land they stole and crept on private property leaving a house without the ability to even wash a load of laundry. I am excited to have a surplus of renewable energy but at what cost? At the cost of NRELs biggest supporters. Does this make any sense?

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@vinnieu I guess walmart would have the same argument that it would increase jobs and bring money into the city...still illegal to claim eminate domain

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@vinnieu I think more of the point is that these people worked all their lives to secure a place for their family. I'm sure there were sacrifices and plenty of overtime involved in this process and after everything is said and done your neighbor sends you documents the day before Christmas and demands your property. And yes that's exactly what happened. I would much rather buy solar for my house with my hard work rather than hand everything over because someone told me so.

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@SnarkyBark thank you! You really understand the importance of this article.

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@traven37 it wasn't vacant weed filled land. It was a massive garage that my father built. It was the family business that brought us so close together. It was the pasture where we fed the horses. It was a peaceful place where we could detatch ourselves from the corrupt world around us. I love what NREL has to offer but I hate the way they took everything and called it nothing. You have no right to say that our family wasn't effected. No picture would have ever been able to capture the serenity of our home.

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@brax.qlipp the problem with the road is the way that it was taken. Eminent domain was used against the people and families affected. This is currently a private road to NREL not a public road. The only way its considered public is if they open it to the park. That is still not done.

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@maikohiga2 they are staring. I have seen many cars nearly drive straight off the road. Not to mention the bicyclists tresspassing on clearly marked property. It sounds like you have a fear of being compassionate to a stranger.

mary_spencer
mary_spencer

 @maikohiga2 They probably are staring at her because she sits next to a beautiful water fall!

 

NWDen
NWDen

 @pixiebabe2 The way it is described in the article, it made it seem to me that maybe a lot of details and particulars were not specifically addressed in the contract.  Ambiguities can wreak havoc in contracting as both sides may interpret general clauses and terms differently.  Hence DOE claiming they complied with all terms of the contract.  If the contract was badly written and lacking in specifics, then DOE might technically be telling the truth.

 

But the only way to get DOE to comply with the terms of the contract, or have a court determine the intent of the contract, would be to take it to court.  Which I have no doubt would cost the family a great deal.  Unless the family is willing to go to the mat on this, they are probably screwed.  I don't know if the family had a lawyer the last go 'round, but if they did, they probably need a better one.  If they didn't use one with the contract, they should at least contact one to see what are their options.  Sad but true.

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@NWDen our family had a great lawyer and he did everything he could for is. We thought that our own personal property would be returned to its place after the construction. I guess that is something that needs to be in writting. Although what was in writting was bent around to better the construction company. We had no rights and we lost all say. The company had easements but somehow were always past the limits and that's how we ended up with a broken leachfield. To cover theirselves they are hiring a company my family has worked with for years to replace the leachfield but it has been several months still. The road has increased the flood plane and leaves us stuck. We just got our permit the other day but now the field is going right where we wanted to build a new garage (because the original one my dad built was destroyed in the process). The construction company knew they were in the wrong and tried to make a peace offering of a bottle of wine. I don't think wine justifies breaking the law. Not to mention the fact that our family is in recovery from alcoholism. Thanks for getting to know us NREL!

 
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