Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Andrew Burger headshot

New NREL Engineers Take Sustainability to Heart (and Home)


Earning a professional engineer (PE) license is no mean feat. Obtaining a job at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, is no cakewalk either. Just 20 percent of engineers earn a PE license -- which requires several years of work under the watchful eyes of a veteran engineer, then putting in hundreds of hours of study in order to pass two grueling eight-hour exams.

Overall sustainability in building and facilities' design and construction have come to be keystones not only in the professional aspects of the lives of four newly minted NREL PEs, but these engineers are also applying the same principles at home. Besides helping public- and private-sector organizations of all stripes reduce energy use and waste and take advantage of renewable energy resources, NREL's latest set of PEs are applying the same values and principles in carrying out projects outside of work – at home and in their communities.

Net-zero energy homes, buildings and government facilities

Lars Lisell, one of NREL's newly minted PEs, serves as “point man” on a project that's moving the U.S. Army's Fort Hunter-Liggett, in California's Salinas Valley, closer to its goal of being a net-zero energy facility by 2020. He and and his wife are also making strides toward making their 1920s-era brick bungalow in Denver a net zero-energy home.

Net-zero energy means the house, building or facility is designed and built to minimize energy use, and that all the energy used therein comes from on-site or shared, local renewable energy resources. At Fort Hunter-Liggett, Lisell and NREL's project team are on track to making the military base a net-zero energy facility by the end of the decade. Working with base and U.S. Army staff, NREL's project team is installing a large solar photovoltaic (PV) energy system, finding ways of improving energy efficiency and carrying out a waste-to-energy system.

Lisell and the NREL project team's work at Fort Hunter-Liggett is just one of many examples of how the lab is building sustainability into engineering, procurement and construction work right from the drawing board.

"We're helping to move the markets to a more sustainable place," Lisell was quoted in an NREL feature story. "A lot of our clients are government agencies, and it's a real win-win. We're helping them become more sustainable, and at the same time we're saving them dollars—and saving taxpayer dollars."

Solar panels, waste-to-energy systems and ground-source heat pumps

Lisell was also a member of NREL's Simuwatt Energy Auditor project team. Now licensed to Concept3D, Simuwatt Energy Auditor provides a means of conducting comprehensive home and building energy audits inexpensively. Use of the energy audit tool “has been shown to cut energy use significantly,” NREL highlights.

At their home in Denver, Lisell and his wife are moving toward their goal of having a net-zero energy home. They have installed solar panels on the roof and rewired the house so that it's ready for installation of a ground-source heat pump this summer. If it works, the Lisells' home could be carbon neutral by Labor Day. Explaining just how a ground-source heat pump works, Lisell said:

"You're using the ground as a big heat sink. During the summer, you're pumping heat out of your house into the ground; in winter, you pump heat out of the ground and into the house. And it provides hot water, too."

Similarly, newly-minted NREL PE Rachel Romero has a deeply ingrained commitment to sustainability. A championship-caliber freestyle swimmer at Michigan's Hope College, the mechanical engineer's love of water has carried over to her professional career.

At NREL, Romero has worked on U.S. Coast Guard's energy management program at its base in Kodiak, Alaska. Gradually, the Coast Guard and NREL are collaborating to replace fuel-oil burners in Kodiak with renewable sources of electricity, light and heat.

"I love my clients; I love my work," Romero said. "What really drives me is trying to push people to practice energy efficiency. I'm a very practical person. I won't just say that it can help save the planet, I will tell them to change out a light bulb because it will last longer and save them money in the long run ... Everyone in society has an opportunity to help out and solve these problems."

Romero's passion for energy efficiency is evident at home as well. Romero, her husband and two dogs are taking advantage of a Nest thermostat to reduce their energy use and utility bills. The smart thermostat enables Romero and her husband to adjust the temperature settings throughout their home at the touch of a button using the Nest smartphone app.

*Image credits: NREL

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

Read more stories by Andrew Burger

More stories from Energy & Environment