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Central Texas Dreams Big for Solar Energy Center

James Montgomery, Associate Editor, RenewableEnergyWorld.com

Texas A&M University-Central Texas (TAMU-CT) is opening the doors for what it claims will be the planet’s biggest solar energy test facility, a 50-MW undertaking spanning both commercial demonstrations and testing, with an incubator program to shepherd newer technologies. The system also will produce all of the university’s power requirements (achieved via net metering), housing enough renewable energy to power the entire TAMU-CT’s campus.

Projected to cost nearly $600 million, the Center for Solar Energy will cover up to 800 acres in Bell County, TX, adjacent to the campus and neighboring Fort Hood. PPA Partners is developing the project, with “one of the 10 largest domestic electric contractors and renewable EPCs” handling installation of all the PV systems. The project will be built out in stages, or “blocks,” according to Bruce Mercy, executive director of the CSE. One financier (choosing to remain anonymous for the next 90 days or so) has already committed $25 million to build out the first block; another has been tentatively lined up and will be announced a few weeks after that, he said. Groundbreaking will begin shortly thereafter.

If any of this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because PPA Partners and its CEO Bruce Mercy were behind a similar project at Arizona Western College (AWC), which compares five different solar technologies totaling 5 MW. There’s another connection: Marc Nigliazzo, president of TAMU-CT, was president at AWC when it devised and built out its evaluation project.

The plan for this solar center is far bigger in scale, though. Besides the 50-MW solar tech evaluation, the CSE also will be home to a National Photovolatic Innovation Competition and a Next-Generation Solar Technology Business Incubator, to identify and support early-stage solar technologies at or near the prototyping stage, with the goal to bring the best of them from concept to market within two years. Participants, selected by a combination of faculty and industry leaders, will receive a 30-KW site for their systems and support (e.g. monitoring equipment, staff & resources). Over 12 months they’ll be tested, graded, validated, and rated against the baseline of the entire 50-MW multi-technology site. Best-performing technologies will advance to a different demo site where data consisting of product grading, rating, etc. will be made public. TAMU-CT will provide support for business plan development, financial analysis, and installation analysis including costs, balance-of-system design, and performance validations such as UL testing. They’ll also help connect winners to VC and manufacturing interests. The University and CSE will “retain a minimal percentage” of IP rights licenses from any technology that goes through the program.

And the school has even bigger dreams for the center beyond the technology — accelerate research and curriculum development within various disciplines from tech to business development, extend collaboration to various partners within the TAMU system (a network of 11 universities and nine state agencies), and regional community college partners and school districts, said Nigliazzo.

“My challenge to Bruce in Arizona was to reduce the cost of electricity, strengthen [AWC's] programs and the economy of the region [that was] suffering greatly from the recession,” Nigliazzo told the audience assembled at TAMU-CT. “The success of that is the basis of what is being announced today in Texas.”