Texas A&M Launches World’s Biggest Solar Photovoltaic R&D Facility

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They say everything’s bigger in Texas, and apparently that axiom extends to solar energy technology research and development.

Man testing solar panel
Solar panel testing image via Shutterstock

Texas A&M University-Central Texas recently announced a collaboration with solar energy entities to launch the Center for Solar Energy (CSE), a research and development facility that when completed, will be the largest in the world.

The $600 million facility will stretch over 800 acres in nearby Bell County, housing hundreds of solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies that not only test and incubate early-stage innovations, but also generate clean electricity for the campus.

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From Incubation To Demonstration

CSE will function as an incubator for solar entrepreneurs, aiming to shorten the prototype-to-marketplace cycle from 6-10 years to less than 2. Participants will enter the incubation program through scholarship, venture capital partner, or advisory board recommendation on the potential for their technology to achieve market success with lower capital requirements.

Once involved, incubating companies will have access to CSE’s two demonstration fields to compare and test their technologies to others on a level playing field. CSE’s main field will be comprised of approximately 100 different manufacturers and technologies, all deployed at a 500 kilowatt (kW) scale.

The main demonstration field will total 50 megawatts of generation capacity when full, enough to supply 100% of the university’s power. Excess power will be sent back onto the grid and is expected to help Fort Hood in its drive to become a net zero US military base running on renewable electricity.

By deploying competitors in the same area, data will be collected under the same solar resources and subject to identical test protocol. “The 50MW solar field will create a baseline of data for grading new and existing technologies while providing a basis for research,” said Bruce Mercy, CSE executive director.

Solar panels in arid field
Solar panels in arid field image via Shutterstock

In addition to the main test field, program participants will have access to smaller demonstration sites to deploy their systems at a 30kW scale for a 3-year period with access to staff assistance, monitoring, and full data sets from other technologies deployed across the CSE.

Texas-Sized Manufacturing And Green Job Opportunities

But beyond just testing technologies, CSE will also give entrepreneurs an avenue to begin manufacturing. A limited prototype manufacturing facility will be available to support production runs ranging from single panels to several hundred kW.

The facility will provide access to low-cost and short-term manufacturing until participants can grow into their own facilities, and could attract up to $500 million in outside revenue from industry partners moving into the area within 6 years, creating a Central Texas solar manufacturing hub from scratch.

As CSE grows in size and attracts new economic opportunities, the center will also help build a green collar workforce. “It will extend collaborative opportunities across the educational spectrum to universities and agencies with the Texas A&M University system, as well as to our regional community college partners and school districts,” said Dr. Marc Nigliazzo, Texas A&M University-Central Texas President.

Solar curriculum opportunities at Texas A&M will abound through CSE. The partnership will offer degrees in renewable energy engineering, physics, and business management, as well as career training and certificate programs for working professionals seeking a new career, and research programs that specifically target job creation and training.

CSE will also create a National Photovoltaic Innovation Award to award annual scholarships for solar entrepreneurs. The competition will feed into CSE’s incubator program and award winners will receive support from CSE staff, full access to the center’s demonstration and manufacturing facilities, and help in developing their business plans.

Hook ‘Em, Solar-Style

So while the Texas A&M community will always hate the “hook ‘em horns” slogan of their rivals at the University of Texas, CSE may give the university something to cheer – hooking the future of the solar industry.

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