Brights Ideas at University of Louisiana at Lafayette

This blog was written by Simon Mahan, former Energy Policy Manager at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | January 31, 2017 | Energy Policy, Solar

In this blog series, SACE staff evaluate college and university campuses investing in clean energy and sustainable practices. To read other posts in the series, go here.

Deep in Louisiana’s Cajun Country, there’s a renewable energy research center dedicated to studying solar energy and biopower. And it smells like barbecue.

Located in Crowley, Louisiana, the Cleco Alternative Energy Center is sponsored by Cleco Power, LLC, and operated by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Inside the research station, UL Lafayette faculty, staff and students conduct experiments on bioenergy from waste sugarcane (bagasse) and other plant-based material. As soon as you step inside, a deep, rich smell of barbecue wafts through the air. UL Lafayette uses two separate processes with heat to transform biomass into torrefied material that could be used as a fuel alternative in coal-fired power plants, or to turn biomass into a synthetic gas (syngas). Researchers work to achieve the greatest energy content, in an effort to make bioenergy more cost competitive with traditional resources.

Outside, the Center operates a 650 kilowatt solar thermal pilot project – the nation’s first university owned-and operated solar thermal power plant. As if something from a James Bond film, two huge parabolic troughs with mirrors reflect and concentrate the sun’s rays to heat water. Instead of generating electricity directly, like photovoltaic solar panels, the heated water can be used directly or coupled with an electric generator. UL Lafayette’s research is designed to improve the performance of concentrated solar power, with the end goal of reducing costs.

Had it not been for cheap electricity, the university may not even exist.

In 1896, concerned Lafayette citizens petitioned local government to develop an electric and water utility system. That community desire led to the creation of Lafayette Utilities System. A few years later, several Louisiana cities competed to become the home of a new university. Lafayette was chosen, in part, due to the availability of electricity. In 1900, construction began on the newly minted Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute, which was eventually renamed the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The university and city’s future were interconnected.

The Cleco Alternative Energy Center is not the first time the Ragin’ Cajuns have concentrated their energy on renewable energy. In 2009, the university competed in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon program against student-led teams from around the world. UL Lafayette students designed and built an off-grid solar home designed to generate as much power as it consumes. Their efforts culminated in the “BeauSoleil” home (Cajun French for “Sunshine”). At the heart of the solar home was Cajun hospitality and joie de vivre (joy for life), as virtually the entire home could be opened to host a massive party at any time. BeauSoleil was also designed with disaster preparedness in mind – Hurricane Katrina’s effects are still cemented in the community’s mind. The student team took first place in both the People’s Choice and Market Viability categories. The BeauSoleil home is now located permanently on the main campus of UL Lafayette.

But the university isn’t resting on its laurels. Its Center for Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy “is working to: 1) Develop local expertise in sustainable power technology design, development, manufacturing, and deployment, 2) Assist small to medium sized businesses develop and commercialize new sustainable power products, and 3) Encourage sustainable power businesses to locate in Louisiana.” In fact, the university is developing a 1 megawatt solar photovoltaic system and is already using virtual reality technology. You can check out the university’s graduate programs, here.

The future is bright for the Ragin’ Cajuns. With a hint of barbecue.

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