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NREL: Pioneer in Energy Efficient Buildings Bestowed Lifetime Achievement Award

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At the start of Otto Van Geet’s career, most research labs spent energy freely for science. Thirty years later, laboratories are more likely to be monuments of futuristic sustainability, and that progress is thanks in large part to Van Geet’s creative work in designing efficient buildings.

For his scientific leadership and permanent impact on laboratory facilities around the world, Van Geet has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL).

Van Geet was nominated for the award by his colleagues at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), where he has worked since 1991. He was recognized for his achievements at the 2022 conference for I2SL, an organization that he helped launch and continues to support.

“This is a very high honor in the sustainability lab world,” said Jefferey Murrell, energy program manager for laboratories, data centers, and metering at the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP). “It is indeed an honor to work with Otto to improve the nation’s data centers and laboratories. Interacting with Otto is similar to taking a remote doctorate course in lab decarbonization and sustainability.”

At NREL, Van Geet got his start codesigning the Solar Energy Research Facility—the first of several buildings on NREL’s campus that Van Geet would help redesign or build from scratch. One of his earliest major projects was an energy efficiency revamp of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) facility that reduced energy and water use by 60% using advanced controls and energy reuse, making it EPA’s first zero-emissions facility.

Cutting-edge controls and systems integration became a hallmark of Van Geet’s work. Early on, he monitored energy flow within labs and discovered strategies to connect water, lighting, HVAC, and research hardware more efficiently. He applied this expertise in countless facilities as part of NREL and I2SL, and he even made a living laboratory of his off-grid, high-efficiency home.

In 2013, NREL built the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), a research center that was already unique in many ways. Van Geet led work to make the ESIF stand out in sustainability, too. Despite the ESIF’s high power use, Van Geet designed synergies between the facility’s assets, like using the supercomputer’s waste heat to warm a high-bay lab, or using wind speed to control air exhaust.

“Otto has not only committed a lifetime’s worth of personal research to the field but has also committed to training those around him,” said Rachel Romero, senior engineer and project leader for FEMP Smart Labs activities at NREL. “He is a technical mentor to many staff who he consistently and patiently helps hone their skills and further their understanding of laboratory science.”

Besides assisting fellow staff at NREL, Van Geet continues to energize and educate the sustainable lab community with his infectious interest in creative solutions. He pushes the envelope in energy efficiency and design concepts, and then he goes the extra mile to ensure that others can apply the same breakthroughs.

“Otto relates equally well with highly technical and lay-person audiences, and he genuinely enjoys sharing his knowledge,” said Sheila Hayter, laboratory program manager for the Federal Energy Management Program at NREL and past president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). “He is able to quickly build trust and help his stakeholders believe that they too can achieve new levels of performance in their facilities.”

Van Geet’s achievements have influenced standards documents and technical guidance that are used widely for remodeling and new builds. Through participation and leadership within the industry, including critical feedback and direct assistance on many projects, Van Geet has left a mark on thousands of federal and private facilities. The I2SL awards presenters remarked that “labs in general wouldn’t be where they are today without Otto’s expertise and perseverance,” and they hope that Van Geet will “continue to be a model and counsel the next generation of lab sustainability leaders.”

I2SL is a voluntary partnership program dedicated to improving the environmental performance of U.S. laboratories. The program organizes events, working groups, and webinars to promote the most-advanced facility designs. Van Geet speaks at and attends I2SL conferences every year and remains a well-regarded technical expert within the organization.

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