A net-zero national lab

Los Alamos is working to reduce, and eventually eliminate, its carbon footprint.

By J. Weston Phippen | November 29, 2023

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Electric bicycles, solar-powered vehicle charging stations, and plans for a hydrogen bus are among the ways the Laboratory is working to reduce its carbon footprint. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s 40-square-mile campus in northern New Mexico consumes about 450,000 megawatt-hours of energy annually. That’s on par with a 43,000-home city. Why? The Lab must power mission-critical infrastructure, such as supercomputers and experimental facilities, and also cool, heat, and light the offices where more than 17,000 employees work. 

The Lab’s carbon footprint includes energy purchased from power plants that consume fossil fuels, as well as a much smaller footprint generated on site. Due in part to recent federal green energy directives, in early 2022, the Lab began phase one of a three-step plan to reduce its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030. By 2050, the Lab hopes to reach net-zero emissions.  

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“We have some unique facilities and engineering requirements here at Los Alamos,” says Jesse Freedman, a net-zero emissions analyst with the Lab’s Sustainability team. “We have nuclear facilities, high security facilities, and environmental considerations, so it’s always a little more challenging for us to undertake improvement projects.” 

The path to zero emissions began with a recommendation to leverage the Lab’s own research. Los Alamos has developed technologies in myriad energy sources, so why not incorporate some into its own power generation? Freedman and his team will explore the potential of algal biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration, hydrogen power, and how other carbon-cutting research can be used at Los Alamos. 

Another early action the Sustainability team took was to reduce the power already being used by Lab facilities. The team implemented automated building operation systems, a networked software that models the most efficient use of power. If, for example, the weather outside is cool and a building requires less air conditioning, the system can automatically respond to these outside conditions, ensuring the most efficient use of energy. 

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Going forward, the biggest change will come from where the Lab sources its power. For several years, Los Alamos has been working to finalize contracts with local energy suppliers that will increase, and eventually replace, all Lab energy consumption with carbon-pollution-free electricity. 

"Together with Los Alamos County, we’re exploring local and regional options for clean energy that benefit the Laboratory, support our critical mission work, and help the county reach its own carbon goals," says Utilities and Infrastructure Division Leader Monica Witt, who in her previous role as sustainability manager, reduced energy use at the Lab by 8 percent and water use by 20 percent.  

The Lab is also exploring sustainable ways for employees to commute to work, as well as travel around the Lab’s vast campus. In May 2023, the Lab launched its first express bus pilot program from an off-site parking lot approximately 20 miles away. Because more than 60 percent of employees commute to work from outside of Los Alamos County, there are plans to expand the pilot bus service to another remote lot about 70 miles away. As part of this program, the Lab will receive a hydrogen fuel cell bus in 2024 to help transport employees around campus and nearby areas. 

For shorter distances, the Lab is already experimenting with an electric bike pilot program. “Electric bikes will alleviate a tiny portion of emissions, but they’re very visible,” Freedman says. “They are one way of telling employees that we’re thinking about net-zero seriously, and we want everyone to get excited about this mission.” ★