San Antonio Creates $50 Million Sustainable Energy Research Institute

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, June 9, 2010 (ENS) – San Antonio is creating a research institute devoted to sustainable energy with a $50 million infusion of capital from the city-owned power utility, CPS Energy.

Located on the campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio, UTSA, the new institute will investigate sustainable technologies applicable to the local area.

The creation of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute was announced Tuesday by Mayor Julian Castro together with the CPS Energy Board of Trustees and UTSA officials.

“This is a bold step,” said Mayor Castro, who serves as an ex-officio member of the Board of Trustees. “Ratepayers will get a more efficient utility, the city will get the economic development value of robust research and development in San Antonio, and the university will spiral ever more quickly to Tier One status.”

The agreement calls for CPS Energy to invest up to $50 million over 10 years in the institute. The first two years’ investment will be $3.5 million, from funds currently allocated to research and development.

The start of Duke Energy’s $45 million Blue Wing solar project in San Antonio, planned as the largest photovoltaic project in Texas. CPS Energy will buy all Blue Wing power for the next 30 years. (Photo courtesy Duke Energy)

Future funding will be developed by the scope of the projects defined by the partnership and subject to annual approval by the Board of Trustees.

“The strength of the agreement with UTSA comes from the partners working together to set the agenda,” said Charles Foster, chairman of the Board of Trustees.

“CPS Energy gets localized research, and UTSA gets a real-world laboratory by partnering with the community-owned utility. We will need this kind of information as we change with the energy industry,” Foster said. “If we can help to develop it in our own community, based on our customers and our weather, then the information better serves our customers.”

CPS Energy officials called it a strategic move that will help the utility invest ratepayer money wisely as utilities across the country are working to implement sustainable technologies.

“As we make the transformation from a traditional utility to one that is focused on providing competitively priced power in a sustainable way, we will look to the institute to help us develop a secure smart grid and to understand how our customers will interact with that new technology,” said CPS Energy Acting General Manager Jelynne LeBlanc Burley.

UTSA President Ricardo Romo said, “We welcome this partnership with CPS Energy as it will not only make San Antonio one of the nation’s leaders in sustainable energy innovation, but also provide a significant boost to UTSA in its steady growth toward a research intensive university of Tier One status.”

Energy policy expert Les Shephard, who this year joined UTSA from Sandia National Laboratories, will head the new institute.

“In the last two years UTSA has been aggressively hiring experts in the area of green energy research and this new agreement will accelerate the acquisition of top quality talent to San Antonio,” said Mauli Agrawal, dean of the College of Engineering at UTSA, who was instrumental in persuading Shephard to join the university.

Shephard says the wealth of energy resources present in Texas makes San Antonio an ideal place for energy-related research and development, attractive to experts from around the nation, and poised to become a green energy research center.

In addition to CPS Energy, the San Antonio Water System has a conservation track record, Shephard observed. Other local academic and research entities with green programs include the Southwest Research Institute, as well as the Mission Verde Center, a city partnership with the Alamo Colleges and Texas A&M University’s Texas Engineering Experiment Station.

The San Antonio-based Southwest Workers’ Union, which campaigns for clean energy and environmental justice, has concerns about the selection of Shephard to head the new research center.

Because the low income communities of color the union represents are often the most impacted by dirty energy production in San Antonio and across the United States, the union’s climate justice organizer Marisol Cortez says, “We welcome UTSA and CPS’s joint efforts to research and implement alternatives to the city’s historical reliance on polluting industries like coal, oil and gas, and nuclear energy.”

“Also for this reason,” Cortez told ENS, “we have serious concerns about UTSA’s choice of Les Shepard to head the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute, as the former vice president of the Energy, Security, and Defense Technologies Division at Sandia National Laboratories.”

“Given the legacies of environmental racism promulgated by the nuclear industry – from the bombing of the Western Shoshone nation to the sickness and death caused by uranium mining in the Southwest – Shepard’s selection unfortunately suggests UTSA and CPS’s very corporatized, militaristic, and technocentric vision of ‘green energy,'” she said.

Cortez says the union is “hopeful that the University of Texas at San Antonio will also organize a center on campus for community-based environmental justice research, bringing together students, faculty, and community members in collaboration on solutions that are as socially just as they are environmentally sustainable.”

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