Dr. Martin Keller assumed the helm of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado late last year. He recently talked with the Energy Times about the Department of Energy’s prime renewables research facility for this, the first of a two-part series.
ENERGY TIMES: What are the main challenges ahead for NREL and what new directions is it headed?
KELLER: I see NREL as a jewel within the national lab system. There are some things where we can improve NREL, and that’s what I will try to do. We need to do a better job realizing the scientific culture of the laboratory. We have one of the top analysis teams here at NREL helping cities, customers and industry deploy green energy. How do you increase the penetration of solar and wind? How do we work on fuel cells? While we’re doing this we discover that we have scientific gaps. At NREL we link academic universities and other national laboratories.
ENERGY TIMES: Wind and solar are getting more mature as technologies. What innovations do you see on the horizon that would be revolutionary?
KELLER: With solar the cost curve is coming down but we cannot stop innovation. We are absolutely not there yet. We need to look into what is the next generation. What are the new materials which would continue to increase efficiency of solar panels?
ENERGY TIMES: It has been said that America spends more research dollars on dog food than energy. Are we doing enough on the energy front?
KELLER: We need to continue to drive innovation in the energy sector in technologies which will not be covered by industry.
ENERGY TIMES: Your background is in biology. How will that shape your role at NREL?
KELLER: That’s correct. I am by training a microbiologist. I have to be a thought leader and an expert in all the different areas related to renewable energy and energy efficiency, linking all this to a more sustainable energy future. The United States is the most innovative country. It excels at innovation and moving technologies to market. We know how to innovate and solve the problems. A lot of solar technology now is produced in China. I’m not a big fan of the fact that a lot of our companies manufacture overseas. The only way how we can be in the driver’s seat is to come up with the next innovation and the next technology. The United States is the leader in cutting edge technology. As this is deployed in other countries, it is a good thing for our planet.
ENERGY TIMES: The Department of Energy would like national labs to coordinate their work on smart grid. How is that progressing?
KELLER: Secretary Ernest Moniz has done an amazing job to drive integration of science and collaboration across the laboratories. We are right now at NREL leading this, and then it always rotates between PNNL and NREL. I’m very excited to see what’s happening in this space.
ENERGY TIMES: Can you provide a couple of early signs of success?
KELLER: The money is just starting to flow and this is very early on to give you data on how the research is bearing fruit.