In what’s touted as one of the largest renewable energy projects in the state, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a large utility company agreed to build a $5 million solar generator to help power the university’s vast campus and be a laboratory for testing such technologies.
The university’s partner in the Photovoltaic Applied Research and Testing Laboratory — NRG Energy subsidiary Louisiana Generating LLC — will finance the construction and provide cash for an endowment that will fund lab operations for 25 years or more, UL-Lafayette announced Monday.
UL-Lafayette will own and operate the PART Lab, which will not be an enclosed facility. Instead, the lab will be composed of many combinations of ground-anchored solar panels stretched across 5 acres at University Research Park.
“When you look at the up-and-coming renewable technologies globally, solar is always at the top of the list,” said Mark Zappi, dean of UL-Lafayette’s Engineering Department.
The long-term deal with Louisiana Generating, which fully or partly owns six coal and natural gas power plants in the state, includes evaluating new and evolving solar technologies and materials that work best with the amount of sun that Louisiana gets.
“This facility will allow the experts to see how do we tweak these technologies to improve their performance in a medium-band (of sun) area like Louisiana,” said Zappi, who also heads the university’s Energy Institute.
Mechanical engineering professor Terry Chambers, who is directing the project, said the facility will provide the university’s vast campus with up to 10 percent of its electricity. While doing so, it will cut down on sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and greenhouse gas emissions.
“Essentially, we’re building our own renewable power plant on campus,” Chambers said.
Chambers said the contract with NRG Energy was signed recently, though the finer details of design will come later. He expects construction to begin this fall, with completion on or before Christmas.
One of the aims will be to figure out the best way to integrate the electricity generated from the sun into Louisiana’s existing power grid. Zappi said faculty and students also will try to determine the most efficient, commercially effective combination of panel materials and operational techniques available.
Another aim is to bring down the capital and operational costs of a solar energy facility, Zappi said.
The PART Lab will offer multiple benefits, including lowering UL-Lafayette’s power costs and advancing solar energy research, said Jennifer Vosburg, NRG Energy senior vice president and president of Louisiana Generating.
NRG Energy operates electricity plants across the U.S. that are powered by coal, oil and natural gas. The utility also operates, owns or partly owns 30 wind- and solar-powered utilities, mostly in the West and Southwest. The largest is the 195 megawatt solar plant in Ivanpah, California, according to the utility’s website.
In 2015, NRG had operating revenue of almost $14.7 billion.