Electric cars get a solar boost at NREL

nrel-brooke-solar-treeA visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., makes it clear that the laboratory is leading today’s renewable energy revolution.

Much of NREL’s campus is powered by solar energy, something the numerous solar panels, which line everything from its buildings to the security gates at its entrance, immediately make noticeable. For example, NREL recently celebrated the completion of a high-efficiency office building in June. A candidate for an LEED Platinum Certification, its rooftop sports 1,800 solar panels.

In addition to high efficiency buildings partially powered by solar, NREL is also a major player in the testing and production of electric vehicle technology. The laboratory is currently testing a Mitsubishi iMiev, which is on lease, as well as a loaned OEM Toyota Prius PHEV.

nrel-brooke-buildingNREL: An overview
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory began paving the way towards energy research and development in 1977, and is now the U.S. Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

According to its website, NREL’s mission is “focused on advancing the U.S. Department of Energy’s and our nation’s energy goals.” NREL excels in the research and development of renewable energy technologies and practices, and has been honored with 45 research and development awards.

Previously known as the Solar Energy Research Institute, NREL became a national laboratory after gaining recognition from President George H. W. Bush in 1991, and established itself as the only national laboratory focused on creating clean and renewable energy technologies.

The lab also owns a converted Toyota Prius PHEV, which holds vehicle-to-grid power capability, and two GEM NEVs that have been at the lab for more than two years.

Plug-in Prius
NREL’s modified Toyota Prius is capable of achieving 100 miles per gallon, and can travel up to 60 miles on battery power alone.

The experimental sedan essentially doubles the fuel economy of a standard Prius, and is revamped to directly recharge from a 110-volt electrical outlet. NREL’s modified Prius also holds a larger lithium-ion battery that reaches speeds up to 35 mph, and includes a rooftop solar panel that absorbs the sun’s energy to charge it while it is parked.

“The stored power in the battery does a great job of displacing petroleum,” notes Tony Markel, senior engineer with the Vehicle Systems Analysis Group on NREL’s web site.

Markel adds that Detroit automakers and Xcel Energy are looking into ways NREL’s plug-in hybrid can be produced affordably for potential buyers.

Solar Tree
NREL is also plugged into solar-charged driving. It has a ‘Solar Tree’ complete with an EV charging station.

The Solar Tree, which was installed by Envision Solar in 2008, is a 3.5 kW solar array that provides solar energy to cover a maximum of two parking spaces. The system includes two AC outlets and produces around 5,000 kWh of energy a year. The tree displaces as much as 1,996 pounds of coal annually, according to Envision Solar.

Mike Simpson, who works at NREL’s Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems, notes that NREL is going to invest in some of the new fully electric vehicles.

“We are investigating their use in our fleet and for research purposes,” he says. “We are also looking at solar carports and are planning their installation on a local military base.”

Battery testing
Heather Lammers, part of the media relations team at NREL, notes that, “One of the really cool things that we are doing with hybrids is battery research. Batteries are kind of the life blood of Priuses and other hybrid electric vehicles.”

NREL is receiving funding for battery research through both indirect and direct resources due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed by President Obama in 2009. Increased funding will not only lead to faster development of batteries for EVs, but will also increase the efficiency of battery life, safety and performance, notes Lammers.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently gave NREL an additional $2 million to improve its laboratory capability.

“As battery manufacturers increase what they are putting out on the market, they need someone to validate and test those batteries,” explains Lammers.

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Lammers says few people know about the possibility of solar-charged EVs because of the current lack of an EV infrastructure.

“A lot of issues still need to be worked out. The hybrid bridges the gap between traditional vehicles and electric,” she notes.

Although Lammers doesn’t personally own an EV, she says she is interested in seeing where the technology is going to go, especially in terms of the future of electric SUVs.

For more information about NREL and ongoing energy research at the facility, visit:


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