NREL cutting four percent of workforce, lays off solar researchers

Source: By Alicia Wallace, Denver Post • Posted: Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden this week laid off 15 solar energy researchers and notified its workforce of plans to reduce its staff by another 50 to 60 people via buyouts, officials confirmed Wednesday.

The cuts — which would amount to less than 5 percent of NREL’s 1,600 person Colorado workforce — were triggered by the U.S. Department of Energy reducing funding and shifting the priorities of its solar research program, NREL spokesman George Douglas said.

The employees laid off Monday were engaged in long-term fundamental research.

Additional cuts will come in “mission support,” areas such as business systems, information technology and public affairs, Douglas said. The departments and the employees eligible likely will be identified later this week.

Federal appropriations for solar energy programs dropped to $233 million this year from $288.9 million last year. The Department of Energy doles out those funds to labs including NREL and provides guidance, which lately has focused more on short-term research important to the electricity market, he said.

“Decisions were made to support programs with higher probability for success and more near-term applications,” Douglas said.

Research will remain ongoing in material science and other longer-term areas, he said.

“(Photovoltaic) materials science remains a core NREL capability necessary to further reduce PV costs beyond current (Department of Energy) targets, but investment in cell-efficiency research is being decreased about 15 percent and it’s that 15 percent decrease which resulted in this week’s actions,” Douglas said in a follow-up e-mail.

The Solar Energy Industries Association is worried by the funding cuts and resources directed away from long-term research that i has provided the foundations of the solar boom across the U.S..

“Cuts to the NREL solar program shuts the pipeline of innovation that eventually yields new, cost-saving products,” SEIA vice president of executive affairs Tom Kimbis said in an e-mail. “Once switched off, that pipeline can’t be turned on easily after employees are forced to work elsewhere, taking years of institutional knowledge with them. We wouldn’t be facing this issue if not for the failure of Congress to appropriate adequate sums for the solar program at DOE.”

Specific details of the severance and buyout packages were not disclosed. The voluntary applications are expected to be accepted during a two-week period starting Oct. 12 and will include a 45-day “regrets period,” Douglas said.

NREL, a national lab of the Department of Energy, is operated by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, which is managed by Battelle and MRIGlobal.