By Tori Richards and Carten Cordell | Watchdog.org
GOLDEN, Colo. — Inside a futuristic, white concrete campus here that looks like some top secret military organization, the world’s scientists gather to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint and ensure a bright, green future for all.
This is what the National Renewable Energy Lab says is going on. But lately the Department of Energy outpost has become infamous for top salaries of more than $500,000 a year and a staffer who went bonkers on social media late last year, threatening to get a gun and go on a “murderous rampage” against the staff of Watchdog.org.
Even industry insiders aren’t sure what goes on at the NREL campus to warrant the $8 billion in taxpayer funding the lab has received since 1977. Its website says, “With more than 35 years of successful innovation in energy efficiency and renewable energy, today our discoveries provide sustainable alternatives for powering our homes, businesses, and our transportation system.”
But despite months of investigation, we haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what happens out there and whether the work is revolutionary enough to really change our lives. We still want to know what the 1,700 employees do every day and why it is managed by a nonprofit organization in Kansas that has collected $18.6 million during the past four years.
We started investigating NREL in November after discovering that its director, Dr. Dan Arvizu, is paid nearly $1 million a year and several top officials more than $500,000. The expose prompted an angry Twitter tirade by lab staffer Kerrilee Crosby, who threatened to murder Watchdog reporters. Crosby was later fired.
“I think they are able to do some of the testing that’s independent that other places can’t do on their own,” said Jennifer Ronk, program director of the Environmental Science and Energy Efficiency department at the nonprofit Houston Advanced Research Center. “It’s nice to have information that isn’t coming from marketing materials. You know what NREL does is scientifically based, and I appreciate that.”
But a former researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation said, “I think it’s primarily a bunch of paper pushers; it’s more bureaucracy than anything else. They thrive on it.”
The researcher claimed to be familiar with an “occasional doctor” who “does research on thin film solar panels.” But the work is highly theoretical, the researcher suggested, not about “getting that research into something producible that will change the world. What happens in the lab is often impossible to produce.”
Watchdog contacted NREL for comment and was provided a list of its successes. But when we called back for further comment, spokesperson George Douglas said, “I have no comment” and hung up.
According to NREL’s web site, inventions include:
- Designing solar panels used in satellites and on a Mars rover.
- Constructing an office building that models energy efficiency by using 50 percent less than commercial codes require.
- Designing a mannequin that sweats and shivers so car companies can study air-conditioning fuel use.
- Developing the Solar Advisor Model, a free tool that helps calculate the overall economic value and installation of solar energy projects.
Energy expert Amy Oliver Cooke said such inventions are better done by private businesses operating in the marketplace.
“There is nothing here that I see that couldn’t be done by the private sector,” said Cooke, director of the Energy Policy Center at the Independence Institute think tank. “The automatic assumption is somehow NREL used all this money better than the private sector could have I look at this and go back to (bankrupt government-supported) Abound Solar and biofuels. You have taken productive money, tax dollars out of the economy for this.”
To prove her point, Cooke pointed to John Keyes, the grandfather of solar energy. Keyes is a private citizen from Colorado who developed the solar technology in use today. He holds 44 solar energy patents and several pertaining to hybrid car engines. He created the nation’s first solar energy lab, authored dozens of books and spawned a network of solar energy manufacturers that sold to 3,000 dealers.
A 1975 U.S. National Archives photo shows Keyes with a solar heating system he developed in his backyard. He opened his lab in 1972, five years before the Jimmy Carter administration launched NREL.
“NREL sent 50-75 people up to our facility where we had real labs, these folks were just hired at that time and wanted to know about the solar industry,” Keyes told Watchdog. “They knew nothing about solar. They said, ‘What is that?’”
He called the government lab a “scam,” saying any handyman could create a backyard windmill that would be more efficient than a swath of 200-foot towers that NREL says is a path to the future.
Indeed, the former lab employee told Watchdog that much of what is done at NREL is data collection from others who have done the research in the private sector. Sometimes the data is plagiarized, the former employee said. Other times it’s summarily discounted because it doesn’t match what lab officials regard as workable.
But NREL has its fans.
Much of its research involves making buildings more energy efficient. To that end, it works closely with Ryan Colker of the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Sustainable Buildings Industry Council.
“We are really focusing on the performance of buildings, particularly around energy and water use. So, being able to learn from what they have done on a technical side certainly informs policy directions and opportunities,” Colker said.
Added Ronk: “It’s not terribly expensive to do that initial invention and come up with a great idea. On the other end, if you have a great idea and you get it to scale, getting it to take off isn’t too bad, but how do you deal with that sort of vortex in between? I think NREL’s work is at the early part of that vortex, where you really test it and demonstrate it and prove it to make sure that these are some things that the marketplace would even want.”
Both Ronk and Colker said they have never visited NREL’s campus in Colorado. Neither has Keyes, but he says he has seen enough on its website to be skeptical of any claims that an invention is revolutionary.
“It’s a scam and you’ll find it to be true once you investigate,” Keyes said. “They’ve been sent half a billion a year for as long as I can remember. What do they do with the money? They pay (staffers) and the profits go to this private company in Kansas. It’s a wonderful scam. There are lots of public troughs and this is one of them.”
Contact Tori Richards at [email protected] or on twitter @newswriter2
Other articles in this series:
CO: Secret energy lab spawns million dollar govt employee (Nov. 24, 2012)
‘Murderous rampage’: Gov’t lab worker threatens reporters (Dec. 12, 2012)
SPECIAL: Watchdog’s 25 scariest people, version 2012 (Dec. 24, 2012)
Murderous rampage worker eyed by cops, off job (Dec. 21, 2012)
Worker exploits lax DOE policy to send threats (Feb. 11, 2013)
Congress: U.S. lab a ‘breeding ground for green scams’ (Feb. 28, 2013)