Smart house

Renewable Energy Experimental Facility

The REEF, left, resembles a real house, with the workshop to its right.

The REEF, left, resembles a real house, with the workshop to its right.


For more information on the REEF and other DRI research, visit

Now that building the alternative power resources at the Renewable Energy Experimental Facility (REEF) is nearly complete, the fun begins for scientists at the Desert Research Institute—fun as in data collection and a quest to prove that sustainable homes are possible and a realistic goal for housing of the future.

“We’re trying to show how all of these energy needs—heating, cooling—can be met through renewable energy,” said Curt Robbins, research engineer. “We want to demonstrate that this can be done with commercially available products.”

The REEF, constructed in early 2011, is 1,400-square-feet and resembles a standard house, complete with a living room and kitchen, two bedrooms, one bathroom and a utility room. A separate 600-square-foot workshop sits next to it. The facility is powered mostly by solar resources, including solar thermal panels, solar air roof and photovoltaic panels. A biomass reactor used for biofuel production is studied in the workshop, and the facility also has two wind turbines. Hydrogen power—generated by wind and solar, stored in batteries, and transformed into alternating current electricity—is used to power the workshop, including a motor designed to run off of different gases. The hydrogen power also powers an electrolizer, which in turn produces more hydrogen.

“We’re testing out a few different solar applications, like solar air collectors, hydrogen production, solar air conditioning,” said Robbins. “We’re looking at how the integration of all these resources complements this facility.”

The project’s aim is to be a “net zero” facility, which means that it strives to produce more energy than it consumes throughout the year, or to at least break even. It is also intended to be an example for off-the-grid homes made for people who live in rural locations. According to the project’s website, “It can cost up to half a million dollars to extend power lines out to very rural locations, whereas the installation of a sustainable energy system of solar panels and wind turbines is more cost effective at around $20,000-$30,000.”

The systems tested are from various businesses, including solar thermal panels from Sunvelope, a Sparks-based company (“In hot water,” April 19). Robbins says that having local products to test would be ideal because the REEF would provide a place to test and collect data on new projects.

“We’d love to have locally made resources, so they can come here and check out how their systems are working,” he said. “We test conventional systems against these to see how they compare.”

An open house was held on Sept. 21 for researchers but was closed to the public. A public tour has yet to be announced. However, Robbins says that those interested in seeing the data from the renewable energy sources can contact DRI.

The timeline for data collection is “indefinite,” for now, according to Robbins.

“We had funding to build it,” he said. “Now we have to find funding to keep it going.” The facility was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, and also serves as the home for DRI’s GreenPower education and outreach program.