Dick Lamm, Denis Hayes on progress of National Renewable Energy Lab 35 years later

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In this week's feature, "Sun Burn," we take a closer look at what the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden has accomplished over the last 35 years -- and how bright its future appears to be as it pushes forward with a massive expansion.

For the piece, we spoke with Denis Hayes, an early director of the lab, as well as former Governor Dick Lamm, who helped Colorado nab the federal facility, which is owned by the Department of Energy. Here, we offer extended reflections from these two, as well as documents and photos from the early years.

Hayes was the director of the Solar Energy Research Institute, or SERI, the predecessor of NREL, from July 1979 to June 1981. But he's perhaps better known for coordinating the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, when he was only 25 years old.

Decades later, Hayes says he is still as passionate about the environment and the future of the planet as he was on that first Earth Day, but adds that he is dissatisfied with the slow pace of progress in building a greener, cleaner society.

When he stepped in as the director of SERI, he had high hopes -- and so did the nation's leaders, he says today.

"President [Jimmy] Carter was probably the most enthusiastic that we've had about renewable energy research," says Hayes, who is now the president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, an organization focused on sustainable development in Seattle.

Carter, who delivered a speech and officially dedicated the Golden facility in 1978, presented the lab at the time as a key component of the United States' plan to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

Carter had made it clear he was serious about investing in renewable energy, and SERI would be a major vehicle for the president's plan, Hayes recalls.

He says that the charge of the lab was to develop "all kinds of technologies to allow us to remain as productive and comfortable as possible, but do it with dramatically less energy."

And a big part of that solution was the sun, which shines 300 days a year in Colorado, Hayes says, echoing a comment Carter made in his speech back in 1978.

In the president's speech, Hayes recalls, Carter SAID the country could meet one-fourth of its energy demands with solar sources by the end of the century and maybe more than half by the year 2020.

"SERI became the key to achieving that kind of giant undertaking," Hayes says.

Hayes notes that SERI was also important for Colorado at the time, and folks locally wanted it.

"In the end, Colorado prevailed," says Hayes, referring to other states competing to be SERI's home at the time. "My sense is that it was embraced pretty enthusiastically across [the state]."

The lab did not, however, proceed forward with the speed or success Hayes or Carter had hoped for.

When Ronald Reagan was elected, as a NREL Newsroom feature on Hayes outlines, oil prices across the world plummeted and the emphasis nationally shifted away from using federal money to promote solar energy -- and back to fossil fuels. Half the staff of SERI was reportedly fired and the president reduced SERI's $135 million budget by $100 million. Additionally, all contracts with universities were terminated.

Hayes, as that article notes, gave an impromptu and now somewhat infamous going-away speech, in which he called staff in and decried President Reagan's cuts to SERI and what it meant for renewable energy in the United States.

"It quickly became politicized," Hayes recalls today. "[Reagan] launched an assault on SERI, slashing its budget and basically shutting us down."

So he left.

And decades later, the lab -- and the country for that matter -- is nowhere near where he imagined it would be back when he first stepped up as its director, Hayes says.

"I thought by now we would be very far along in terms of the transition to an economy and, in fact, a planet powered principally by sunlight, directly and indirectly," he says. "We would've largely achieved the transformation of leaving coal behind."

At the time, Hayes imagined that NREL, the new name for SERI starting in 1991, would get the same support as the Department of Energy's other national laboratories. But, he says, it never got the kind of resources it needed to really be a catalyst for change.

He thought SERI would lead to a boom in the solar energy industry and become a lab that had deep partnerships with private companies and contractors, he says.

"I was wildly, naively optimistic back then," he says. "Alas, that's not the way we went."

He recalls: "We were building a true center of excellence. To some extent, that was guaranteed to disappear."

He notes that today, the United States is struggling to compete with other countries in the solar energy industry.

"We had hoped that America was going to lead," he says, adding that major innovations have "mostly come from other countries."

Still, he says, the work of NREL today remains critically important. When asked for his take on a different aspect of our feature, the Department of Energy's use of eminent domain -- the process of seizing private land for a "public good," with just compensation -- Hayes says NREL's use of this tool was a no-brainer.

"For me, that is so far from being a question that it's hard to believe," he says. "We use condemnation and eminent domain to do things like build sixteen-lane freeways.... Aggressively pursuing a research agenda in one of the two or three most important research topics in the world -- that's a public good."

Continue reading for reflections from Dick Lamm, the former governor of Colorado, who lobbied to bring SERI to his state. Getting SERI in Colorado was a huge priority for then-Governor Dick Lamm. When we first reached out to him for our feature earlier this summer, he was in Wyoming with no cell service and sent us this short e-mail, which nicely summed up his recollections of his enthusiasm for the lab back in the '70s:

We really went all out of SERI. I devoted a full staff member in my office, plus various other top people from other Departments and the School of Mines. WE REALLY MADE A PUSH FOR SERI AND IT SUCCEEDED.... I believe I went back to D.C. twice and entertained often in the Governor's Mansion to close the deal.

We were later able to connect with Lamm on the phone. He recalls that nine or ten states competed for the lab.

"I couldn't begin to tell you how many meetings we had on it," he says.

Lamm notes that SERI was also important to him because he thought it could help counter some negative perceptions that came with the famous campaign he led in 1972 to dump the 1976 Winter Olympics.

"It was a big deal to me," he says. "I came in with an anti-business aura because of the Olympics, and because of various things I did in the legislature.... It really [showed] that we could put together an economic-development thrust that was first-rate."

In addition, Lamm says he really cared about the mission of SERI.

"I've been convinced since the '60s that it was foolish to rely on foreign oil," he says. "I really was very passionate about alternative energies." He says: "It seemed to me it was unsustainable to take lots of U.S. dollars and send them to the Middle East to buy energy for...cars."

Like Hayes, Lamm expected that our country, as well as the lab, would have made much more significant strides in advancing alternative energy by the 21st century.

"It seems to me that public policy malpractice continues to burn as many fuels as we do," he says. "How does a society learn?... Growth as we know it is unsustainable."

He admits that he and other leaders probably could've done more about it decades ago. "I didn't say that very loudly at the time."

But today, he recognizes that "our grandchildren are gonna point to us and say, 'How could you have done that?'"

If someone back in 1976 had told him the percentage of energy consumption that would be coming from alternative sources in 2012, he says he would've laughed.

"I thought the technology was much more promising and on a much faster timeline," he says.

But, he acknowledges, the problems and challenges extend far beyond a laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

"We live in a society without foresight. There is just no vision. There is no sustainable vision," he says. "We continue to borrow money from the next generation and pollute their environment."

Continue for the original proposal for SERI in Colorado as well as more historical photos. Original 1976 proposal to bring SERI to Colorado, including a letter from Dick Lamm.

SERI Proposal 1976

More from our Environment archive: "Photos: Top fifteen inventions and innovations of the National Renewable Energy Lab."

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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