Transformation of the Energy Economy: The US experience – Part III, Renewables

EGU’s Science Communications Fellow, Edvard Glücksman, continues to share his thoughts as he takes part in a study tour with other members of the Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy Network (ELEEP), a joint project of the Atlantic Council of the United States and the Ecologic Institute. If you have any questions or comments, please contact Ed by email.

On our first site visit we traveled to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, the only US facility entirely dedicated to researching and developing renewable energy and energy efficiency technology.

The NREL is the only facility in the US entirely dedicated to research and development of renewables. It is located in Golden, Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Housed across a large campus of buildings equipped with state-of-the-art energy efficiency technology, the NREL, established in 1974, is in the unique position of being government-owned, funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE), yet operated by privately contracted staff who remain removed from the policy-making environment. The importance of this arrangement was highlighted by our hosts, who offered us a detailed historical background of the facility and an overview of the broad range of topics covered at NREL, including renewable electricity and end-use systems, renewable fuels and vehicle systems, as well as pure research in the energy sciences.

ELEEP members pose at the main entrance of NREL.

Transmission and distribution challenges

I was particularly struck by the complexity of energy transmission operations; that is, the transport of energy from its source to consumers. Although around 6.5% of electricity is lost annually across the US during transmission and distribution, the challenges of providing more efficient ways of moving energy often do not get as much attention as the process by which it is initially generated. As a European it is difficult to grasp the sheer volume of hardware needed to link American consumers with their energy source (though we are starting to think about it more now, with the prospect of solar transmission from North Africa looming), a factor that places grid design front-and-center in the North American energy efficiency debate and lends credence to the idea that energy is best distributed through networks of local hubs rather than across a centralised nationwide system.  Environmental factors, such as the intense heat often found near solar sites, also influence transmission efficiency and further highlight the need to continue developing transmission and distribution research.

ELEEP members tour the extensive NREL campus and its state-of-the-art energy efficient buildings. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Improved solar efficiency the ‘holy grail’

We were told that making solar power more accessible within the NREL’s work was the ‘holy grail’ of NREL’s research effort. Their photovoltaic research focuses on boosting solar-cell efficiency and lowering the cost of solar equipment with the hope of achieving the US DOE’s SunShot Initiative goal of making large-scale solar energy systems cost-competitive with other domestic energy sources by 2020.

The NREL also contributes to international research, in particular with developing countries as they try to expand their renewable energy facilities. By helping nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Bangladesh manage natural-hazard risks, or by consulting with the Indian government about potential coal-reduction strategies, NREL serves as a global voice for the adoption of renewables and the proliferation of renewable energy production companies. However, we noted the conflict of interest inherent in such an approach: by offering developing nations a chance to become more attractive to renewable energy market stakeholders, would they not be simultaneously pushing business away from US shores?

NREL serves as a testing facility for renewable energy prototypes, such as this wind turbine. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Our discussion ended with a virtual tour of, NREL’s open-access energy data sharing platform. The site includes policy information, country profile pages, an energy-related app store, and freely accessible energy-related datasets uploaded from around the world (“the world is our audience”) using the universal Linked Data format, machine-readable and searchable using reegle, a search engine dedicated to renewable energy. Despite the potential scientific shortcomings inherent in working with crowdsourced data, the information featured on OpenEI is a welcome step in improving the public understanding of renewable energy, if only because it increases awareness and provides a platform for cross-cultural collaboration.

Maintaining the NREL and its 1,700 staff costs around €262 million annually, a healthy sign that the US remains committed to developing its renewable energy portfolio. However, with the increasing influence of cheaper, domestically available shale gas, will the DOE continue to push for a greener energy future? Anyone concerned with the effect of hydrocarbons on global climate sure hopes so.

By Edvard Glücksman

Transformation of the Energy Economy: The US experience – Part II, Red Rocks

EGU’s Science Communications Fellow, Edvard Glücksman, is blogging live from the United States as he takes part in a week-long study tour with other members of the Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy Network (ELEEP), a joint project of the Atlantic Council of the United States and the Ecologic Institute. Check out below for his first post from overseas and, if you have any questions or comments, please contact Ed by email.

Hello everyone and greetings from the United States! Fortunate enough to be one of the first arrivals, I spent the first full day here hiking with some of my colleagues in the beautiful Colorado wilderness around the unique Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Local residents exercise up and down the Red Rocks amphitheatre’s seats. Apart from on concert nights, the area is usually entirely open to the public. Downtown Denver can be seen on the horizon just left of center. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Located to the west of Denver in the small town of Morrison, Red Rocks is a geological wonder. Featuring three large rocks perfectly arranged for optimal acoustic conditions, this stunning location has been used for open-air concerts since the early 20th century, and perhaps even earlier by Native Americans from the Ute tribe. Legendary artists such as Sting, U2, or even The Beatles have performed at Red Rocks and consider it a highlight of their careers.

Our group hikes next to a boulder bearing the distinctively red colour found throughout exposed areas of the Fountain Formation across Colorado and Wyoming. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

The area around the amphitheatre, Red Rocks Park, is equally beautiful, replete with exposed red sandstone rocks distinctive of the wider Fountain Formation, a bedrock unit from the Pennsylvanian age, between 290-296 million years old, consisting primarily of conglometarte, sandstone, or arkose.

Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, also part of the Fountain Formation. Photo taken last year. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

After watching the fitness-crazy locals exercise up and down the amphitheatre’s seating area, which can take up to 9,450 people on concert nights, we walked into the wilderness of the surrounding park, taking in the breathtaking landscape and the view of downtown Denver from a distance. The day before our rigorous study tour begins, at 1,966 m above sea level our hike was definitely the perfect ‘altitude training’ for the week ahead!

The ELEEP early arrivals. From left to right – yours truly, Mihaela Carstei, Kathryn Sparks, Janis Brizga, Agata Hinc, and Gerald Franz. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

By Edvard Glücksman

Transformation of the Energy Economy: The US experience

EGU’s Science Communications Fellow, Edvard Glücksman, will be blogging live from the United States next week as he takes part in a week-long study tour with other members of the Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy Network (ELEEP), a joint project of the Atlantic Council of the United States and the Ecologic Institute. Check out below for a blog introduction to the tour and, if you have any questions or comments, please contact Ed by email.

Hi everyone!

I am leaving for the US this weekend to take part in a study trip under the theme Transformation of the Energy Economy: The US Experience, which includes visits to a range of energy- and environment-related institutions in Colorado and northern California.

Both states are experiencing pivotal moments in their history, not least California, the eighth largest economy in the world. The Californian economy has struggled over the past decade but has recently begun to show signs of recovery, partly because of a surge in sustainable energy production; its future energy policies and their wider economic effect will serve as powerful indicators of national economic health.

Colorado, a long-time epicentre of the US energy industry, has recently been thrust into the spotlight as an important swing state in the upcoming presidential election; that is, it is a state where no single candidate or party has overwhelming support. As the campaign heats up between President Obama and Mitt Romney, energy questions and their relationship to the job market, are sure to feature prominently.

Colorado Springs from above. Colorado’s future role within the US energy industry will have important consequences on the nation’s political landscape. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

An example of the political and socioeconomic importance of the energy market in Colorado is the recent announcement that Vestas, the largest wind turbine maker in the world, is cutting 20% of its jobs at its tower factory in the southern city of Pueblo. The Danish company cites the weakening market for the job cuts, blaming US Congress in Washington DC for not renewing the federal wind-production tax credit, set to expire at the end of this year. Vestas employs 1,700 people in four plants across Colorado.

I am hoping that my trip will build on work I carried out last summer, when I spent five weeks with the El Pomar Foundation, a Colorado-based non-profit organisation. After receiving a thorough introduction to the US culture of philanthropy, leadership practices, and the nation’s complex state and federal political landscape, I am now ready to apply these basic principles to better understand the US energy economy and make more informed comparisons with the European energy market.

Stay tuned for my first impressions from Denver early next week!

By Edvard Glücksman

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