NMSU powers up with clean energy - Albuquerque Journal

NMSU powers up with clean energy

Utilities and Plant Operations Director Patrick Chavez shows the ice storage tanks at NMSU’s chilled water plant, where ice is made at night and then melted in daytime to cool buildings across campus. (Courtesy of NMSU)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – New Mexico State University will soon derive half of its total electricity from a new, 3-megawatt solar array that El Paso Electric Co. built on the NMSU campus in Las Cruces.

It’s scheduled to come online in November with 10,000 solar panels and a 1-MW battery system that can provide up to four hours of backup power when the sun goes down.

The array is on prominent display in a previously vacant 29-acre parcel at NMSU’s Arrowhead Park, which the university is developing into an industrial hub on the south side of campus. It’s nestled between Interstates 10 and 25 – a strategic location deliberately chosen to offer passing motorists a sweeping view of the facility, Arrowhead Executive Director Wayne Savage said.

“It’s a highly visible site designed to draw attention,” Savage told the Journal. “NMSU and EPE want to be known and seen as leading the way in grid transformation.”

The solar facility is the latest development in a new, broad university vision to turn NMSU’s campus into a model for low-carbon, energy-efficient technologies to both power up university facilities while simultaneously offering hands-on learning opportunities for students, faculty, community professionals and policy makers. The university wants to convert its campus into a “living lab” for energy research and development to assist New Mexico and other states as they transition from fossil fuels to non-carbon resources, NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu said.

“Other universities, like Stanford, are doing similar things, but our concept of using the university system as a ‘living lab’ is unique in our region,” Arvizu said. “We can provide significant contributions to help the state move from aspirational objectives to strategy implementation to reach its goals.”

As former director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, Arvizu is leading the charge to transform NMSU into a prime mover and shaker in the energy transition, not only in New Mexico, but at the national level. In September, the White House appointed him to the national Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which makes science, technology and innovation policy recommendations to the president.

Arvizu also heads a new “energy Cabinet” at NMSU that includes university deans and representatives from NREL and Sandia National Laboratories who meet monthly to help guide energy strategies in the public and private sectors.

NMSU is now heading two state-level initiatives. One, funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, aims to help communities around New Mexico tap into the state’s emerging green energy economy to promote business development and job creation. The other, funded by the DOE, is working to build a “clean energy cluster” of startup companies through NMSU’s Arrowhead Center, which manages all of the university’s entrepreneurship and technology-transfer programs.

The university is now pursuing federal funding for more initiatives. One would turn NMSU’s statewide system of agricultural science centers into hands-on demonstration sites for methods to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural industry.

Another would convert a now-defunct solar demonstration site, which the DOE operated at NMSU in the 1980s, into a modern clean energy technology lab for research, technology commercialization and workforce development, said Patricia Sullivan, engineering associate dean and director of the chancellor’s Strategic Initiatives Office.

“It’s an outdoor test facility with structures already in place and wired up,” Sullivan told the Journal. “We need to upgrade and convert it for modern research.”

That facility could become a tiny microgrid to study emerging technology and controls, said Olga Lavrova, associate professor of electrical engineering.

Electrical engineering associate professor Olga Lavrova discusses the server system at NMSU’s Power Systems Lab, which captures real-time data from local and regional grids and stores it for processing and analysis. (Courtesy of NMSU)

Under Lavrova, the engineering school is already conducting extensive research on microgrids, smart energy technology, solar generation, battery storage and other things at a dedicated Power Systems Lab that receives real-time data from El Paso Electric and regional grids, and from on-campus power systems managed by NMSU’s Utilities and Plant Operations. The lab monitors and stores the data on its own servers for processing and analysis.

There’s even a simulated microgrid in the lab that emulates power supply and consumption in a mock, smart-wired neighborhood, with a supercomputer to process and analyze the data.

The university’s real energy jewel, however, is its Utilities and Plant Operations, which directly supplies 52% of NMSU’s electricity and all heating and cooling on campus. Over the past decade, campus managers developed a unique, real-time, monitoring-and-control network to maximize energy efficiency, immensely cutting consumption and costs while significantly lowering carbon emissions. The entire system has become a living lab for university research and education, Utilities and Plant Operations Director Patrick Chavez said.

Now, the newly built solar array at Arrowhead Park will add an entirely new dimension to NMSU’s power supply, offering research and learning opportunities when it goes online next month.

EPE will own, manage and maintain the system under a special-rate contract with NMSU approved by state regulators. The $8 million facility will generate all campus electricity not supplied by Utilities and Plant Operations, while allowing NMSU students and faculty to study such things as dust mitigation and seamless operational shifting of output between the solar panels and backup battery system.

It’s also educational for EPE, utility engineer Ruben Quiroga said.

“It’s our first company-owned, utility-scale solar system with battery storage,” Quiroga said. “It’s a learning experience for both sides.”


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