Biden touts local energy lab as hotbed of invention

The Colorado Statesman

“Science is back,” Vice President Joe Biden told a crowd of excited dignitaries and federal employees gathered at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden during a swing through the metro area on May 20.

Comparing the discoveries made by scientists at NREL — one of a score of national labs Biden called America’s “crown jewels” and said constitute its greatest capital — with the country’s success building a transcontinental railroad and landing a man on the moon 100 years later, Biden said naysayers willing to concede the future to emerging economies have it wrong.

The vice president used the occasion to announce the first recipient of the Department of Energy’s “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator” program, designed to move some of the more than 10,000 unused patents held by national labs into the marketplace.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter praises the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. e-Chromic founder Loren Burnett share words on May 20 at the lab in Golden. Biden announced Burnett’s company was the first to license NREL technology under a new program designed to spur entrepreneurs.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette speaks at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden on May 20. Joining her are U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Biden was accompanied on his visit to the laboratory by fellow Democrats U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter, whose district includes the facility.

“Centers like NREL are vital to this economic recovery and job creation,” DeGette said.

“The entire world sees that we have to find new ways to power ourselves, power the world,” Perlmutter said. Crowing with local pride, he boasted that the research at NREL is the envy of other fast-charging economies. Noting that he had recently returned from a visit to Asia, Perlmutter said the lab is regarded the world over for its innovations.

“This facility is well known and it will be creating jobs for many years to come,” he said, adding that the breakthroughs scientists make at NREL are “good for national security, good for the climate, and good for jobs.”

Bennet lauded the jobs and other benefits at hand when private investors take technologies developed at NREL to market.

“Colorado is a state that can lead the 50 states breaking our alliance on foreign oil and creating a national security future for our kids that we can all be proud of,” he said.

While Biden took great pains to sound at least sort of humble — “I don’t mean to be chauvinistic,” he said numerous times, either before or after touting American achievements and potential — he rejected the notion that American entrepreneurs take a back seat to anyone.

“This isn’t chauvinism,” he said. “I want China to succeed, I want India to succeed. But so many people today think that China has already eaten our lunch — ladies and gentlemen, our economy’s three times as large.” And beyond that, he added, “Our free enterprise system is designed to do things no other system in the world can do.”

Rattling off a list of medical and engineering marvels he said American scientists have the opportunity to pioneer, Biden said the country has the chance to steer innovation. “I want you to imagine the first country that makes solar power as cheap as fossil fuels and builds the first buildings that are able to produce all of the energy they consume, which is about to happen at this campus,” he said.

But America’s success isn’t a certainty, he said, wagging his finger at critics of the administration’s spending on research.

“Either we’re going to lead, or we’re going to follow. And whoever leads will have the march on the economic dominance of the 21st Century,” he said.

“President Obama and I are absolutely certain — this is not chauvinism, this is just a statement of plain fact — that the United States is best positioned than any country in the world to invent, to build, to market these breakthrough technologies.”

One of those technologies is a system licensed under a new federal program by Boulder-based U.S. e-Chromic, a start-up headed by a husband and wife team who moved to Colorado looking “for the next great idea,” said company founder Loren Burnett.

The technology — developed at NREL — applies a high-tech film to existing windows and uses electricity to change the window’s tint depending on time of day, temperature or sunlight. U.S. e-Chromic licensed a Department of Energy patent for just $1,000 under the federal program, and Burnett said it would be raising substantial private capital soon. By reducing heating and cooling costs, and without the expense of replacing existing windows, it could save American consumers billions of dollars, projections suggest.

“I am speaking to you here today as clear evidence that these programs are already delivering tangible results,” said Burnett, who first met Biden when he worked as a Senate aide in the 1970s and introduced his old friend to the NREL crowd.

Biden urged the listeners to track down President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to take the nation to the moon by the end of the 1960s — an address to Congress delivered 50 years ago this week — and underlined how the U.S. government has spurred the country’s scientific and technological growth.

“It wasn’t just about the moon,” he said. “It was about creating an army of scientists — and look what resulted from their work.” The economic benefits of the space program can’t be calculated, he said.

“Now, more than ever, America’s future competitiveness depends on our ability to innovate and our capacity to live up to our rich history of technological advancement,” Biden said. “Through this kind of public-private collaboration we are bringing groundbreaking technology out of the lab and into the marketplace and our lives.”

The soft-spoken Biden reiterated that his point was not to bash the rest of the world but simply to face facts.

“I don’t say that in a chauvinistic way, I say that to remind Americans of what our capacities are. We are driven by an entrepreneurial spirit that has risen to the occasion time and time again. It’s the story of this country.”

Biden also tipped his hat to Boulder-based Tendril, a smart-grid technology corporation that produces monitors — the size of an iPhone, Biden said, though a Tendril representative said they were somewhat larger — consumers can use to see how much electricity they’re using in real time. The company just signed a lucrative contract with utilities in Australia to deliver the devices, which allow ratepayers to adjust their consumption to take advantage of off-peak billing, as well as determine how much electricity each appliance was using.

Hours earlier, Biden appeared at a high-dollar fundraiser for Obama’s reelection campaign at the Denver Athletic Club in downtown Denver. Tickets to the private event cost between $1,500 and $35,800 per couple, according to a Democratic official, who declined to say how much the gathering raised but added that some 40 donors attended.

Included in the crowd at the Obama Victory Fund fundraiser was House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, who let loose the news he had secured commitments from two Colorado Democratic legislators — Senate President Brandon Schaffer and House Minority Leader Sal Pace — to run for Congress next year against freshmen U.S. Reps. Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton, respectively.

Before addressing NREL and Department of Energy employees, Biden went on a tour of the laboratory, including a stop to examine a set of glove boxes in the Atmospheric Processing Platform. Inside the airtight boxes, scientists demonstrated a technique to spray electrical contacts on solar cells, similar to the way inkjet printers operate, according to the dispatch from a White House pool reporter. Confronted with the contraptions, Biden cracked, “You want me to put my hand in there, you’re crazy!”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com