Sustainable Communities

Sustainable Development brings together critical ecosystem process understanding with developmental goals to preserve and improve global livelihoods through fair yet sustainable resource use and access. NREL Scientists explore sustainability of social-ecological systems through research and modeling that bridges traditional social and ecological disciplinary boundaries.

With global populations increasing and climate change affecting people and ecosystems around the globe, efforts at sustainable development are becoming more critical. New approaches, techniques and technologies need to be developed that will allow us to maintain and improve our standards of living, livelihood security, water and food security, health and general well-being, and issues of justice, while remaining conscious of our natural environment. It is possible to improve quality of life while also maintaining or improving the sustainability of natural resources for future generations through careful research, community and stakeholder engagement, and efforts to mobilize sustainable management of land and water for activities such as agriculture, energy development and recreation.

Finding a balance between conservation and use of our natural resources and ecosystems has been a focus of research by NREL Scientists for decades. Work in sustainable development requires active collaboration between ecologists and social scientists in traditional disciplines such as Anthropology, Political Science, Economics, Sociology, and others. It requires expertise in diverse research methods, and deliberate engagement with people on the ground at all stages of research through stakeholder engagement, participatory research design and citizen science. NREL scientists and their research partners on campus, in the private sector, government entities, NGOs and communities, have conducted sustainable development research projects on several continents.

In North America, NREL scientists, including Jill Baron, study the interactions of climate, climate change, and atmospheric nitrogen deposition, and their impacts on mountain terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems of the West, including Rocky Mountain National Park and Forest Service Wilderness Areas. This helps us to understand and quantify effects, and to share knowledge gained from research activities with the public, scientific community, and natural-resource managers. NREL scientists work toward solutions to reduce nitrogen pollution with stakeholders and policy makers in both agricultural and utilities sectors.


Several NREL scientists are working on projects related to soil health and productivity. M. Francesca Cotrufo and Keith Paustian are studying the sustainable exploitation of forests for biofuel production while preserving and/or increasing the ecosystem services provided by soils and the soil organic matter. Matt Wallenstein is accelerating scalable agricultural innovation for improved human and environmental well-being through data-driven & systems-based approaches to soil health.