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60-Second Earth

35 Years of Renewable Energy

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been working for 35 years to make solar power and other technologies a reality. David Biello reports

On July 5, 1977, a group of scientists and engineers opened the Solar Energy Research Institute in the Colorado foothills of the Rocky Mountains. By 1980, the outfit had a budget of $100 million dedicated to research and development of photovoltaics and solar thermal power. They also strove to educate the public about solar power and energy efficiency.

Such sunny dreams faded during the Reagan administration but the scientific outfit rebounded in the early 1990s, now called the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Its mandate expanded to everything from algae-based biofuels to harnessing the thermal energy in hot rocks.

Now NREL is turning 35, and such sources remain a small fraction of the U.S. energy supply, despite precipitous drops in the cost of renewable technologies like wind and solar. More than 80 percent of U.S. energy still comes from burning coal, oil and, more and more, natural gas.

In addition, recent government efforts to boost the future of solar manufacturing in the U.S. have ended in bankruptcy, from Solyndra to, more recently, Abound Solar. So there’s plenty more work to be done to make renewable energy a reality. To avoid catastrophic climate change, let's hope it doesn't take another 35 years.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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