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Posted: July 01, 2010

Cote’s Colorado: Teaming up on clean energy

NREL partners with France to bring research to market

Mike Cote

There's nothing like endless images of pelicans with their wings covered in oil to underscore the importance of alternative energy and international collaboration.

When the head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory met with a French energy executive to discuss their research partnership in late May, Deep Horizon already had been gushing as much as 40,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico daily for a month.

The April 20 explosion, which killed 11 workers and injured 17 others, came just weeks after President Barack Obama reversed a ban on offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, a decision designed to curry Republican support for a climate change bill that would promote renewable energy.

NREL, operated by the U.S. Department of Energy in Golden, recently signed a one-year agreement with Tenerrdis - a cluster of energy researchers and startups in the Rhone-Alps Region of France - to collaborate on solar energy, smart grid and battery technology research.

During an interview with Dan Arvizu, NREL's director; and Claude Graff, executive adviser of New Energy Technologies at Schneider Electric France; the BP oil spill only briefly entered the conversation. But when Arvizu alluded to it, it clung like oil on a pelican.

Arvizu had been responding to a question about whether the current push for renewables will have a longer shelf life than its run in the '70s. For example, I told him about the June 2009 ColoradoBiz cover photo that featured a Colorado School of Mines researcher working on algae fuel - technology she had dusted off from work NREL had been doing 30 years earlier.

"These things are cyclical. There's no question," Arvizu said. "However, there's a sense of urgency to transform our energy economy now with the concerns we have over liquid transportation fuels and particularly oil."

In other words, the potential environmental impacts of drilling for oil - risks that Arvizu said we have largely ignored.

"It's on everybody's mind," Arvizu said of the BP spill. "And I think it's testament to the fact that you can't always anticipate what some of those risks are, and you need to be a lot more judicious about that. That's why energy efficiency is so important. The less consumption or the less supply you need, then you can be a lot more thoughtful about how you provide that supply."

Energy efficiency is at the heart of what Graff's electric company touts to its clients. Graff, who previously was chairman of Tenerrdis and was instrumental in crafting the NREL partnership, said improving efficiency can cut a company's power costs by as much as 30 percent.

"We always look to have a global picture of the energy issue for customers: how to improve efficiency, how to introduce renewables, and in the future how do you connect all this to the grid?" Graff said.

While visiting Colorado, Graff visited Abound Solar and Ascent Solar to check on their progress. While the NREL and French partnership focuses on solar, smart grid and battery technology, both Arvizu and Graff said the international community needs to consider how those technologies can complement traditional sources, including nuclear, which provides France more than 75 percent of its electricity.

"People who say, ‘We just need solar,' or ‘Wind, it's so nice,' or people who just want nuclear - that's an illusion," Graff said. "The real story is to have the right balance. You have nuclear; you have coal; you have renewables. In the future, it will be all of this."

Arvizu and Graff could face roadblocks as they navigate regulations and politics in both countries. But their selling point to policymakers is getting new technologies to the marketplace more quickly.

"The energy challenges that face this country are global problems, and they are so great we know we need to do this in partnership with other institutions," Arvizu said.

Especially if you want to see a pelican flap its wings without balls of oil dripping off them.

On ColoradiBiz TV: Watch segments of our interview with Dan Arvizu and Claude Graff on the Planet-Profit Report channel at www.cobizmag.com
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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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