Established in 1974,[Note 1] NREL began operating in 1977 as the Solar Energy Research Institute. Under the Jimmy Carter administration, it was the recipient of a large budget and its activities went beyond research and development in solar energy as it tried to popularize knowledge about already existing technologies, like passive solar, amongst the population. During the Ronald Reagan administration, the institute's budget was cut by some 90%; many employees 'reduced in force' and the laboratory's activities were reduced to R&D. In later years, renewed interest in the energy problem improved the institute's position, but funding has fluctuated. In 2006 funding had dropped to the point that NREL was forced to lay off 32 workers, and in 2011 anticipated congressional budget shortfalls led to a voluntary buyout program for 100 to 150 staff reductions.
Since its inception in 1977 as the Solar Energy Research Institute, it has been operated under contract by MRIGlobal. In September 1991, the NREL was designated a national laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) by President George H.W. Bush and its name was changed to NREL. Currently, NREL is managed for the DOE by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC. The Alliance was formed in 2008 as a joint venture between MRIGlobal and Battelle. Dr. Dan E. Arvizu became NREL's eighth Laboratory Director in January 2005, and currently serves as both the director of the lab and president of the Alliance.
In 2011, NREL became the co-secretariat of the Low Emission Development Strategies Global Partnership (LEDS GP) alongside the Climate & Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).