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.
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.