Cutbacks at NREL

Lost (to me) during the holiday season was the late December announcement by the Department of Energy of roughly a 10% budget and staff reduction at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

Rocky Mountain News Article on NREL Cutbacks

This announcement was accompanied by the expected indignant handwringing from local politicians worried about economic impacts, as well as from most renewable energy community advocates. Given all the hubhub about needing to wean America from its addiction to oil, how dare the Bush Administration simultaneously reduce funding at NREL?

While I concur with the prevailing sentiment that energy is a critical issue facing our society that requires much more technology research and development, I don’t necessarily take the next step in logic (or faith?) that others have in believing that NREL is the place to do it. In its 25+ year history, I would like to see a list of the commercially-viable technologies that have stemmed from NREL research. My guess is that it would be a pretty short and unimpressive list.

In my occasional interactions with current and former NREL staff, there is a recognition bordering on resignation, steeped in cynicism, of a deeply flawed organization with limited impact. NREL is filled with well-meaning people, but somehow, the lab just doesn’t seem to work. Is NREL really the type of place that should be further bloated with more funding? I say, “Not with my taxpayer dollars.” Far better to deploy the funding to other institutions with less dysfunctionalism, greater urgency and a better sense of the pulse of the energy marketplace.

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