September 12, 2006

NREL looks afield

Wind testing plant to be built outside state

By Gargi Chakrabarty, Rocky Mountain News

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden is planning to build a multimillion-dollar wind- blade testing plant. But it won’t be in Colorado.

Plans for the nation’s second wind research center include testing wind blades as long as 230 feet.

Lack of adequate federal dollars and the difficulty of transporting long wind blades to an inland region such as Colorado are prompting NREL to build the plant somewhere else, possibly along the coasts or the Great Lakes easily accessed by ships and barges.

The nation’s first large wind-blade testing facility was built by NREL in Golden in 1997 and expanded last year. It can test blades as long as 164 feet.

This is the first time in its 29-year history that NREL is looking to build a research and development facility in another state.

“We can’t have everything in the state of Colorado,” said Walt Musial, a senior engineer at NREL. “We still have the big facility in Golden capable of testing every size of wind blade; there is room in this country for multiple wind-blade testing facilities.”

And NREL has no dearth of suitors.

Given the burgeoning demand for wind power across the nation, states are scrambling to land the project, estimated to cost up to $10 million. The facility would employ several highly paid scientists and also attract manufacturers of wind blades, turbines and components – potentially creating hundreds of new jobs in the area.

The wind industry is estimated to touch $80 billion by 2020.

Texas is aggressively courting the lab for a site somewhere along the Gulf Coast. Proposals also are expected from Toledo, Ohio; Delaware and Massachusetts. NREL’s deadline for the proposals is Nov. 10, and a final decision will be made by the end of the year. The plant is expected to begin testing by July 2009.

“We’re not announcing we’ve won, but we want to win,” Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson was quoted in a recent news report.

Musial said the lab had originally requested money five years ago to build the testing facility, but Congress didn’t approve it. So NREL’s last option was to enter into a partnership with either state governments, industry or other entities to finance the project.

U.S. Rep Bob Beauprez said, “This seems location-driven and really doesn’t diminish what NREL accomplishes here.

“We don’t build battleships in Colorado either,” said Beauprez, who is the Republican gubernatorial candidate. “Any characterization or assumption that this is a loss for Colorado is a mischaracterization.”

But NREL’s move disappointed others.

“It seems extremely short-sighted to not be vigorously pursuing what sounds like a wonderful economic development opportunity,” said Evan Dreyer, spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter’s campaign.

Some said setting up the facility in, say, Texas, would rob Colorado’s wind industry of the advantage of having a world-class testing facility in its back yard. It is essential for manufacturers to test their products before selling them on the open market.

“It really upsets me that other states are vying for bits and pieces of NREL,” said Michael O’Beirne, a Lakewood resident and a consultant to the fuel-cell industry. “NREL’s R&D needs to stay here. The brain trust should stay intact.”

Craig Cox of the Intrawest Energy Alliance, a trade group that represents the wind industry, said this underscores the need to stabilize NREL’s budget and financing for research and development programs.

NREL has had numerous budget cuts in recent years.

In dollars not adjusted for inflation, NREL’s budget was $174 million for fiscal 2006, compared with $201 million in 2005, $211.9 million in 2004 and $229.8 million in 2003.

About 98 percent of its money comes from the U.S. Department of Energy. The rest comes from technical fees and other sources.

Budget cuts had forced NREL to lay off 32 employees earlier this year, although the jobs were restored two days before a visit by President Bush.

“While it would be unfortunate to lose a test facility,” Cox said, “we need to make sure that we keep NREL fully funded so that all of its essential R&D activities that take place in Golden will continue to thrive.”

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

“¢ Mission: Develop renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies and practices; advance related science and engineering; transfer knowledge and innovations to address the nation’s energy and environmental goals.

“¢ History: NREL was established as the Solar Energy Research Institute in 1974 and opened its doors in Golden in 1977. SERI became NREL in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush designated it a national laboratory.

“¢ Current staff: 930 employees and 170 contractors.

“¢ Layoffs and buyouts: 32 in 2006 (25 reinstated); 230 in 1996; 500 in 1981. or 303-954-2976

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