Are we looking at a small-business solar stimulus? Wall Street loves the notion of federal dollars sloshing around the economy. But, actually, getting almost a trillion dollars in domestic spending and tax breaks into people's hands -- particularly small-business hands -- is another story. One unlikely ground zero for this domestic payout will almost certainly be here at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. The lab was a late '70s Carter administration brainchild aimed at jump-starting research on any energy thing that was not traditional fossil fuels. Budgets have come and gone over the years, basically in direct proportion to the price of gasoline: bigger prices per gallon at the pump meant more NREL spending to find alternatives. These days, the lab, which is just over the hill from the Coors beer plant, does cutting-edge research in everything from biomass fuels to wind power to solar. For my money, places like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory -- which is part of our chain of national labs including Ames, Los Alamos, Brookhaven and Oak Ridge -- have been academic, rather than practical, places. Traditionally, researchers have been more likely to retire with a Nobel Prize than to cook up something a business person could actually make money with. But the rapid pace of technology and the growing role of the government in developing new tools have turned this place, and labs like it, into an emerging hotbed of small-business innovation, a legitimate conduit for new technologies marching into the private sector. And with none of the attitude found at the usual-suspect big-research universities.
On a recent tour of the lab, I found the staff interested, transparent and doing some dang interesting, relatively commercial work. Take the once-for-big-business-only world of solar power. The NREL is working on improving solar voltaic efficiency on a number of fronts. And the lab gets major style points for making the process of licensing their new technologies relatively rational. Want to develop a solar array, for example? Simply go to the technology transfer area of the NREL Web site and look for the patent, contact or business process that most interests you. And start making calls. "NREL has a long history of handing technology off to the private sector," says George Douglas, the media relations manager who led my tour. "It's a comfortable role for the lab." Many already have. Take San Francisco-based Greenvolts, a hip solar power company specializing in a form of concentrating photovoltaic cells that promise to offer affordable solar power. And, sure enough, at the end of March the operation announced new technology it got through its relationship with NREL. First Solar ( FSLR) and Evergreen Solar ( ESLR), look out. Now, working with government labs is not child's play. It's no place for small-business wannabes. It takes real cash, expertise and guts. And I have heard plenty of grumbling from small companies as they struggle to work with what is essentially an arm of the government. But considering the Obama Administration has committed itself to spending what I reckon is $1.5 billion a day to get the economy working again, technological meeting points that shuttle new tools between the public and private sector are increasingly important.
As if on cue, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu is expected to show up here today to announce a major new stimulus spending package. And with several new buildings going up on the campus, more action is bound to come from these organizations. For my money, if you're a small business in the tech game, this is where stimulus dollars will be flowing. If I weren't chasing down this crazy media business, it's what I would do.