Business News

UL/NRG Energy agreement powers 5-acre solar lab

by Christiaan Mader

For a university well-versed and well-steeped in energy history, the move is as forward thinking as it is economically sensible.

Photovoltaic panels in Southern California
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A joint project to build a $5 million solar power lab and generator on campus will make UL Lafayette one the latest American universities to foray into renewable energy. Funded by energy giant NRG Energy, five acres of green space at UL’s Research Park will host a phalanx of solar panels that will reduce the university’s use of fossil energy by 10 percent. Students and faculty will study solar technologies at the newly dubbed Photovoltaic Applied Research and Testing Laboratory, providing valuable measurables to the energy industry and an educated solar power workforce.

NRG Energy will pay to build the facility through its subsidiary Louisiana Generating LLC., and provide an endowment to continue funding the program for the next 25 years. UL will own and operate the lab, expected to be completed within a year of groundbreaking.

“This project is a powerful demonstration of how one solar energy project can provide multiple and far-reaching benefits in Louisiana – reducing energy costs for the university, abating emissions, and providing valuable opportunities to advance solar energy research,” said Jennifer Vosburg, president of Louisiana Generating and senior vice president of NRG.

A roof of solar panels covers a parking garage at Arizona State University
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Universities across the United States have pursued solar technologies as a means of securing energy independence, lowering climate changing emissions and reducing operating costs. Several universities have chased carbon neutrality by way of solar energy purchasing agreements.

The PART Lab site will feature 5,300 individual panels producing about 3.5 percent of UL's annual energy needs. UL's annual energy consumption is roughly 64,000 megawatt-hours.

UL joins a smaller class of energy-forward schools like Princeton University, which produces 5 percent of its energy with a 27-acre solar area featuring 16,500 photovoltaic panels.

Arizona State University recently covered a parking garage with photovoltaic panels which double as a source of electricity and shade from the punishing Arizona sun.

Recently, the Louisiana solar industry has been strained by abatements to previously robust state sponsorship.

Between 2008 and 2015 Louisiana solar companies enjoyed a generous 50 percent state tax credit that spurred rapid growth of the industry in the state. Coupled with a 30 percent federal credit, the industry ballooned with many companies moving into leasing rather than selling panels.

Some lawmakers saw leasing as an unintended and undesirable consequence of the state’s credit program and moved to tighten the credit amid the 2015 budget crisis. The legislature passed a $20 million global cap on deductions through 2018 in an effort to close a $1.6 billion budget deficit in the Jindal administration’s final year.

Solar industry advocates complained that the renewable industry was targeted disproportionately at a time when credits to oil and natural gas producers accounted for a much larger revenue shortfall. By 2015, the solar credit had reportedly cost the state $147 million in lost revenue since inception. Severance tax exemptions awarded to the oil and gas industry cost the state more than $1.1 billion between 2010 and 2014, according to a 2015 legislative audit. Shale fracking of natural gas accounted for 96 percent of the handout.

UL’s partnership with NRG marks an important step toward diversification of the area’s energy portfolio, and one of most significant recent corporate investments in the technology. The PART lab facility will be among the largest solar-sourced generators in the state, and easily the largest in Lafayette.