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From Technical Support to Planning Tools, the National Renewable Energy Lab Has Resources for Cities and Is More than Willing to Share

Session leader

  • Elizabeth Doris, Principal Laboratory Program Manager for State, Local, and Tribal Audiences, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Presentation


The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) is rich with a legacy of research and development, which have been applied to help local governments test and visualize impacts of different implementation approaches. The lab’s tools originated out of demand for solar, but NREL is beginning to expand to other renewable energy sources. Liz Doris was prepared to discuss over a dozen questions NREL is frequently asked to address and then invited the participants to vote on which three she would address in the short time that was available:

  • What are the jobs and other economic development impacts of renewable energy projects in my jurisdiction?

    JEDI models calculate direct and indirect jobs that result from a renewable energy project. This tool is populated with default values that the user can change and the outputs compare well with case study outcomes. While this tool is designed for American cities, a participant noted it was used with great success in Australia. NREL also provides job training in renewable energy system maintenance.
  • What incentives/policies are necessary to improve system economics?

    CREST, short for the Cost of Renewable Energy Spreadsheet Tool, calculates the levelized cost of energy of a project. CREST also has the capacity to model various economic drivers and their effects on the levelized cost of energy for specific projects, including incentive programs. (Note: CREST is not to be confused with NREL’s Systems Adviser Model (SAM), which is meant for detailed auditing of system performance.)
  • What are the market impacts of different policy scenarios?

    By way of example, Doris explained that NREL models scenarios to illustrate the impacts of policy decisions, such as the change in solar uptake if the State of Maine were to replace net-metering programs with bulk purchasing. NREL’s role is not to advocate but to support achieving local goals with sound data and analysis.


Through the dialogue, participants learned that NREL is working with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) to develop an Alternative Fuels Centre. A participant pointed out that Canadian cities do not have direct access to energy and emissions, as data are collected by provinces and obtained through partnerships with researchers and institutions. To address the problem of lack access to data, so created energy profiles for American cities that are publicly accessible.

There was also a question about how NREL factors in resilience planning, which Doris explained is done in cooperation with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through NREL’s REopt program (Renewable Energy Planning and Optimization). The program addresses a range of resilience issues, from identifying opportunities for solar and storage to maintain grid reliability to major disruptions, such as relocation of vulnerable communities, and economic shocks.

Cities also struggle because they lack staff capacity. There are examples of environmental managers being funded by external organizations: in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency placed environmental managers in Native American tribal communities; and in Canada, the McConnell Foundation and the Canadian Urban Sustainability Partners network have funded these positions in municipalities. Participants indicated they would value having NREL experts visit their communities to help them assess their needs, which one participant dubbed “a small army of experts” mobilized to share their technical and human skills. They also indicated that they value opportunities like the Global Learning Forum where they can share experiences and learnings with their peers.

Key Takeaways

Above all else, Liz Doris made clear that NREL is more than just a holder of knowledge and is useful to local and regional governments beyond just the U.S. context. Some of NREL’s assets include:

  • A suite of tools, databases, and studies available online and can be used in combination to solve a range of problems cities often face when planning renewable energy projects.
  • Although the roots of the program are in solar, NREL is rapidly expanding its portfolio to include the full range of renewable energy technologies and end-uses.
  • NREL invites partnerships and collaborations outside of the U.S.A.