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UTSA stepping up sustainable energy research programs

By Madelyn Garner
On February 27, 2012

  • Workers install solar panels on the roof of a school in an effort to help supplement the school’s energy needs. AP photo

As the United States pursues its goal of exploring sustainable energy sources, San Antonio is taking the lead by partnering with clean technology companies to create a "new energy economy."

The goal of pursuing clean energy technologies is focused on reducing carbon emissions produced by coal-fired energy plants, such as San Antonio's CPS Energy plant near Calaveras Lake.

In January, the Department of Energy announced that CPS Energy would purchase 200 megawatts of electricity annually from the Texas Clean Energy Project (TCEP), a clean coal power plant, soon to be built near Odessa, Texas. What sets the TCEP apart from other coal-fired plants is its carbon capture technology that is projected to capture 90 percent of the carbon emitted from the plant.

When completed in 2015, the TCEP is expected to be the cleanest coal-fueled energy plant in the world. At a cost of $2.4 billion, the TCEP will receive $350 million in federal funding.

Carbon capture technology is a process that captures and compresses carbon dioxide and then transports it through pipelines to long term or permanent storage sites, such as rock formations located deep underground.

Another contender in the field of emerging clean technologies is energy storage. Many international companies already provide utility companies with the technology and resources to store energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

"Developing technology to store electrical energy so it can be available to meet demand whenever needed would represent a major breakthrough in electricity distribution. Helping to try and meet this goal, electricity storage devices can manage the amount of power required to supply customers at times when need is greatest, which is during peak load. These devices can also help make renewable energy, whose power output cannot be controlled by grid operators, smooth and dispatchable," according to the EPA's website.

CPS Energy has partnered with UTSA's Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute to research clean energy technologies, such as wind and solar power, as well as energy storage. "For (CPS) to engage with a university is unprecedented.

All the business partners CPS is engaging with today are actually engaging with the university through the institute. This brings opportunities that the university would never have had otherwise. Companies and national laboratories wouldn't come to UTSA if we didn't have that (partnership) in place," Dr. Juan Gomez, a research associate professor with UTSA's Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute, said.

Created in 2010, the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute is led by Les Shepard, who came to UTSA from Sandia National Laboratories. Under the direction of Shepard, the institute's mission is to provide solutions in technology that reduce costs and promote "responsible environmental stewardship."

With an aggressive goal of leading the nation in clean energy research, city leaders expect the partnerships to grow the local economy with new businesses that will bring hundreds of jobs to San Antonio.

"San Antonio can be for the New Energy Economy what Silicon Valley is to software and Boston is to biotech," Mayor Julian Castro said.

So far, this economy boasts partnerships with Consert, an energy management company that relocated its headquarters from North Carolina to San Antonio last August.

Greenstar, maker of LED streetlights, is currently planning to relocate its manufacturing plant to Alamo Downs and expects to employ 38 people.

Other companies that have joined forces in San Antonio's drive to pursue green technology are OCI Solar Power, which will build solar farms from panels built by another CPS Energy partner, Nexolon. Both companies will open their headquarters in San Antonio and plan to hire at least 800 people. OCI Solar Power Board Chairman, Kirk Milling, told the Express-News in January 2011 that the project is expected to be "the cornerstone of our emerging green business in North America."

Currently, the majority of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from coal and natural gas; however, wind and solar power are promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as viable alternatives. The challenges facing industry leaders include integrating green technologies with current energy sources while also providing efficient delivery without increasing costs for consumers.

"Most (energy) solutions that were technically based used to be good enough, but now [solutions] need to be technologically sound and economically feasible," Dr. Gomez stated.

The push towards green technology seems over aggressive to many in Congress who disagree with using tax dollars and government backed loans to support clean energy companies. The bankruptcies in 2011 of solar panel manufacturer, Solyndra, and energy storage company, Beacon, prompted investigations by the justice department and spawned congressional hearings in connection to Solyndra's ties to the Obama Administration and its mismanagement of tax-payer's dollars. Collectively, these companies received loans totaling $578 million.

What appears undisputed, however, is the higher cost of utilizing renewable sources. Costs include building the infrastructure and distribution networks, as well as land resources needed for wind farms. Proponents argue that over time, the costs will be reduced as more renewable energy technologies are adopted, and that wind and solar costs do not fluctuate with market prices as oil and gas do. Critics charge that energy independence should remain the country's primary objective and that the U.S. should ramp up its efforts to capitalize its gas, coal and oil resources.

To advance the mayor's vision for a new energy economy, city leaders and CPS Energy will rely on Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute for input on what it deems "critical areas" – energy, water, education, housing and water.

"(These areas) will make San Antonio a more clean energy environment (and ultimately) more sustainable," Gomez said.


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