Economy, Energy, and Entrepreneurship: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Thu, 12/15/2011 - 3:35am
R&D Editors

National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Bob Hawsey speaks on topics including funding, peer review, entrepreneurship, nanotechnology research, and communicating research missions in a social networking environment.

Paul Livingstone, Moderator: Tell us a little bit about yourselves, just to establish things and get everyone talking.

Bob Hawsey, National Renewable Energy LaboratoryBob Hawsey, associate laboratory director for renewable electricity and end use systems
I’m the Associate Director for Renewable Electricity and End Use Systems at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). That means I spend a lot of my time managing a portfolio of solar and wind energy research, as well as an electricity delivery portfolio. And then, on the demand side, we do quite a bit of building energy efficiency research. Before going to NREL in 2008, I spent 28 years at Oak Ridge National Lab

Livingstone: One aspect of government-funded research that may not be as well appreciated by, say, researchers at private companies, or even perhaps our readers, is how projects of national security or importance are assigned to national laboratories or research centers.

Identify how your organization fits into this process and if you've seen some changes recently or over time.

Hawsey: So when a project of national importance is initiated such as the Sun Shot Initiative that President Obama announced last February, work is assigned to laboratories like NREL in a couple different ways.

One is we have an annual operating plan process that undergoes a very rigorous review, a peer review process with our Department of Energy sponsors. But also, we respond directly to funding opportunity announcements issued by the Department of Energy with peer reviewed proposals. So, that’s another way we get mission assigned to NREL.

Livingstone: In recent years, there's been discussion about the peer review process. And, there have been some questions about its effectiveness and even its integrity. What is your organization's opinion about the effectiveness of the current approach to peer review, which relies on anonymity and assumptions of honesty? And, explain changes that you'd like to see with this approach.

Hawsey: DOE has been competing more and more of mission assigned to labs like NREL and that competition is, by definition, peer reviewed. The results are determined in part, by the reports from peer ir “merit” reviewers who are subject matter experts. In our experience at NREL, we’ve been pretty successful at this new way of doing business. But, it has required us to establish new methods for preparing proposals, reviewing them, and for submitting proposals.

We set up an entire proposal shop just to do that because it is a new way of doing business for the DOE labs in general, in the applied space, such as those funded by energy efficiency and renewable energy. This isn’t cheap, by the way, to respond to these funding opportunity announcements. But again, we’re competing successfully, but it has required a new way of doing business for us.

I also believe that a good peer review process involves open peer reviews, as well as the more private-type peer reviews that proposals seem to undergo. And so, having open peer or program-wide reviews, where the funding agencies hire or engage reviewers and have the work presented in public meetings, is important so that there’s a communication and an open vetting of the results.

And, the payoff of this is labs like NREL often get invited to participate in peer reviews and actually be reviewers of programs in other countries. So, participating in international reviews is very important to us. It’s a way to keep tabs on what’s going on worldwide in things like wind energy research or solar energy research.

The other thing that we’ve been doing in the peer review areas, and we talked earlier about LDRDs, (Laboratory Directed Research and Development), is engaging external reviewers to help drive our innovation at NREL.

So, we have five universities that have seats on our Board of Directors, Colorado State, University of Colorado, and Colorado School of Mines, then MIT and Stanford cover the two coasts. So, we actually have engaged our partner universities who help govern the laboratory in the peer review process for our internally directed funds.

I might mention, that there’s always room for improvement. The peer review process, by definition, has to be somewhat secretive. Having said that, when you think about something like solar energy, most of the good universities and good laboratories in the United States are already engaged in the DOE program. So, it’s highly likely that DOE has to go to other organizations who, as you said earlier, have a less vested interest in the outcome. And, primarily, that might mean going to Europe, or Asia, or other institutions like that for quality peer reviewers.

Livingstone: Research and funding in nanoscale technology has been increasing for both basic research and increasingly in product development. Recent findings are shedding some light on the effect of nanomaterials on biological systems. I'm wondering if this affects any research that is taking place at your organization. And, if you feel that some more regulation may soon follow as a result of some of these findings?

Hawsey: At NREL, nanoscale materials are being researched and developed for things like advanced battery materials or for the working fluid in concentrating solar thermal power systems. Nanomaterials can help us raise the working fluid temperature.

But, I think, there’s a common theme here and that is—at least at the government laboratories—we already are heavily regulated to protect the health and safety of our employees who use nanomaterials. And, all new nanomaterial system handling systems have to meet those stringent requirements.

Livingstone: How does your organization make adjustments to changes in funding or times when funding seems uncertain? And, that seems to have been quite a bit recently.

Hawsey: Our budget at NREL over the last 33 years has varied almost directly with the price of a barrel of oil. Having said that, we may actually see a change in that trend in that the new House of Representatives is putting downward pressure on the budgets for renewables and efficiency research for the government fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

So, we want to drive innovation through technical advances, regardless of the funding levels. We do strive to maintain our research, science, engineering, analytical capabilities at NREL that are critical of achieving the mission that DOE’s assigned us, which is to advance clean energy and make clean energy a key part of our nation’s energy equation.

There are some of the ways we add a flywheel to the process to help level out the government budget machinations. We have been dramatically increasing our work for other federal agencies, our work for the private sector, for states, forging new alliances with organizations such as the Electric Power Research Institute, supporting the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security goals to enhance the security and resiliency of the nation’s electric grid. All that’s been very important to the laboratory.

In addition, we’ve done things to help our staff be more entrepreneurial. I believe you can teach innovation, so we literally have been conducting classes for the staff on innovation and how to be more entrepreneurial, how to interact with companies that come to the Laboratory for science and engineering support.

And finally, I might add, NREL, I believe, is nearly best in class, if not best in class in terms of its ratio of direct to indirect employees. So, we’re always taking a look at how to do even better, to keep our indirect staff count as low as possible and yet, maintain a safe, secure, and productive laboratory.

It also probably should be mentioned, that NREL, like many national labs, has to manage the workforce by restructuring occasionally. And, we did announce a voluntary, or “self-selected voluntary separation program” because we do see some downward pressure in some of our budgets. And, many labs have already been through one or more of those processes in the past 12 months so NREL’s no exception.

Livingstone: Now, even if Solyndra represents a single event and perhaps a small percentage of this type of government loan guarantee, there is the risk of other publicized commercial failures related to government funded research. What will this type of possibility mean for your organization? How do you plan to respond to such events? And, what are your thoughts about the current situation?

Hawsey: First, it’s important to note, our basic technology research mission at NREL hasn’t changed as a result of this particular business situation. Government financed energy research is still critically important. I think a famous starship captain once said, “Risk is our business.” And it is risky to do energy research and we’re seeing some of that play out in the marketplace.

I might add, to put things in perspective, the top five Chinese photovoltaic companies received over $30 billion in outright bank loans, not loan guarantees, but outright bank loans from Chinese banks. So, this particular business failure pales in comparison to that.

At NREL, we do have a PV incubator program that’s specifically structured to help small business technology based start-ups, the kinds of businesses that can really drive innovation and economic growth.

This incubator program is designed to undertake high risk research that industry cannot and will not undertake to produce technological advances that can greatly benefit our country. While the research is at high risk, the program has produced some significant technology and breakthroughs, such as inkjet printing of solar cells, a manufacturing process that won an R&D 100 award this year. The company that won this award in partnership with NREL is a company called Innovalight. It will be featured tonight.

It’s a small start-up company from Sunnyvale, California. They had an idea to suspend silicon in solution and create a silicon ink. The first partnership between this company, Innovalight, and NREL was a 2008 cooperative research and development agreement or CRADA, that in which Innovalight paid for the expertise of scientists at NREL who agreed to keep the technology proprietary until such time as Innovalight was able to go to the marketplace.

Later on, they won a competitive bid to participate in NREL’s photovoltaic incubator program. They had to meet some very stringent deadlines and deliverables to improve their technology in return for the help they got from NREL scientists in overcoming the scientific barriers. This PV incubator program has worked with 30 or more small businesses now.

NREL is one of the smaller national labs and yet we have more cooperative research and development agreements and other formal partnerships than our sister laboratories that are two or three times our size. And, I think that shows the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of our employees.

So, this incubator program has leveraged a few tens of millions of dollars of DOE government investment in these small companies and resulted in over a billion dollars of private sector capital being invested in these companies. Companies like Abound Solar in Colorado employ 100s of employees as a result of this very small initial investment.

Livingstone: The economy's going through a difficult time, making politics also very difficult. What's your perspective on how government-funded research can really help turn things around or at least get things moving forward a little more quickly now that they appear to be a little stuck? How can this type of research stimulate the economy, perhaps stimulate jobs?

Hawsey: Federally sponsored research in partnership with industry has resulted in a lot of the awards we’re going to celebrate tonight. So, I think the business model’s there for bridging the gap between just good ideas in the scientific laboratory and marketable products.

But, the traditional way we do energy R&D probably needs to change. And, that’s one way the government research can help stimulate the economy. We need a more unified approach to innovation research in this country, a way to have innovation to occur with impact. So, it’s my belief, that our conventional way of doing research at laboratories and in industry could actually be one of the more significant barriers we face in the United States to getting effective technology into the marketplace.

What we really need is a team sport, what I would call unified, full spectrum research model. We’ve been implementing this at NREL for some years now. So, it’s more than just doing the science, publishing a paper, and then, maybe if you have an invention, hanging a patent on the wall, waiting to see who grabs it and takes and runs with it, maybe someday somebody will do something with it.

It’s a team sport of engaging our scientists and engineers, not just with the science, but in engaging with the innovators and getting technology commercialized by the private sector.

So, at NREL at least, part of our core mission is to help reduce the investment risk that allows the private sector to help take technologies to market. And, they reduce that investment risk by engaging with scientists and engineers at labs like NREL and begin able to have access to the specialized equipment at DOE and other national laboratories to reduce the investment risk, reduce time to market.

Now, part of this is a win-win for us too because by partnering with the private sector in this new, what I would call more unified model, we deliberately pick industrial partners that can help us accelerate our accomplishment of our mission specific-tasking we’ve taken on from the Department of Energy.

If we do this right, we partner with industry, they reduce their investment risk, their time to market; we reduce our time to delivering on what we’ve promised to do, delivery for the Department of Energy and it’s a real win-win.

Livingstone: One of the important things for government-funded research centers and organizations is to communicate some of their work to the public themselves because they're the ones doing the research and they would be the best to communicate it. How do you approach this task of communicating some of the work that you do and how are you adapting to some rapidly changing technologies that allow you to do that?

Hawsey: I think it’s all about a tiered approach to communicating. It’s difficult to talk about a scientific accomplishment, like demonstrating multiple exciton generation for the first time in 140 characters.

Have your elevator pitch ready for the right time, such as NREL working with a major boutique supermarket chain last year demonstrated the ability to build a store that’s 40 percent more energy efficient than their normal store. And, you get that message out and then you want to be able to answer the question, “why should the public care?”

At NREL, we do our usual, traditional news releases. We Tweet those releases as headlines, just like the 40 percent story I just gave you, to the people that want to get Tweets. We post headlines on a Facebook page. We started a new, traditional, paper copy version of a new magazine we call Continuum.

But, we also benchmarked some of the webzine content, such as that maintained by the New York Times Magazine. So, we benchmarked our new webzine. It has a lot more interactive content based on this magazine, on those kind of national level webzines. So, we’re doing a whole tiered approach from traditional press releases, to Tweets, and everything in between, including interactive websites.

One thing that is really important is to have a communication strategy and a well-crafted set of key messages that you want to communicate because otherwise you get this disjointed kind of message out in the community, whoever’s reading your material about what you’re doing.

So, you really need to get everybody on the same page in terms of what your message is before you get into doing a lot of the social media, talking out in the community, and doing presentations, and all those kinds of things we all do. It requires that consistent message.

If I could also add, sometimes the best communication from a laboratory is not to communicate, let others do it for you. When a congressman recently proposed to close down an entire part of the Department of Energy that some of us care deeply about, we decided not to say anything. The public and the various economic councils in the Denver area shot off letters to the editor, letters to the congressman. So, we let the public speak for us at the right time.


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