Renewing Nevada's economy with renewable energy

Nevada's strength in the gaming and hospitality industries has earned the state top honors as one of the world's most popular resort destinations.  Its rich tradition of mining dates back to the state's humble beginnings more than a century ago.  Yet, the recent recession has demonstrated the fragility of relying on such a narrow economic model.

Consider that by 2018, 54 percent of Nevada's jobs will require postsecondary education and it does not take a college degree to realize that Nevada needs to shift gears or get left farther behind.

What would Utah do?

Fortunately, Nevada is not alone in its quest for a new identity.  Less than a decade ago, Utah, which had a similar makeup as Nevada (see table), made a shift.  Utah's elected and higher education leaders decided the time had come to embrace the future instead of the state's past economic models.

  Nevada Utah
Population 2.6 million 2.8 million
Density 85% in urban areas 80% in urban areas
Economic History Mining and tourism Mining and tourism
Universities 2 public research 2 public research
Per Capita Income 20th in nation 49th in nation

In 2006, the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR)  initiative was launched by the legislature to allow for strategic investment in the state's two public universities to recruit the world's top scientists, and build new research facilities and collaborative commercialization partnerships in order to move Utah to the cutting edge of science, innovation and economic prosperity.

The outcome?  More technology-based start-up firms, higher paying jobs, and additional business activity leading to a state-wide expansion of Utah's tax base.

Utah's unemployment rate is now consistently two percent below the national average in both up and down economic cycles and its universities are tied with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for first place in the number of spinoff businesses generated.

What is Nevada doing?

Nevada's System of Higher Education has been quietly moving forward with projects that will allow the state to not only reinvent itself, but to also build a foundation that will create economic stability and diversification.

One such innovative effort is the Nevada Renewable Energy Consortium (NREC).  With the state's rich geothermal, solar and wind resources, the Desert Research Institute, University of Nevada, Las Vegas and University of Nevada, Reno have been collaborating to expand and accelerate renewable energy research and development.  In addition to research, the collaborative is developing online certification programs in renewable energy and renewable energy systems integration with the electric grid to prepare Nevada's workforce for the high tech jobs that will define the new Nevada.

Launched in 2009, NREC has received $5.5 million in federal appropriations as a result of the efforts of former Nevada State Senator Randolph Townsend and U.S. Senator Harry Reid.

"Simply put, our mission is to build a better Nevada," says Chancellor Dan Klaich.  "The NREC is just one example of how higher education provides opportunities for students and develops cutting edge research that will move our economy into the 21st century."

Although collaborative in nature, each institution is focusing on technologies that fall within their respective areas of expertise. DRI is focusing on wind energy, hydrogen systems and biomass.  UNLV is focusing on solar energy and energy conservation. UNR is focusing on biomass and geothermal energy.

For example, UNLV's work with solar energy is creating innovation and jobs. The university recently partnered with Amonix, a manufacturer of utility-scale solar power systems which resulted in the company opening a North Las Vegas manufacturing facility, creating 278 jobs.  In 2009, Amonix installed its 7700 system, the world's largest pedestal-mounted solar system, on the UNLV campus.

"Partnerships between universities and industries are very important for the U.S. to maintain a world lead in technology development and implementation," says Ken Stone, a research scientist with Amonix. "Universities provide critical resources and conduct research and development that help small businesses develop, which ultimately accelerates the commercialization of technology."

"Students become well-versed in many aspects of the solar industry – not just research – as a result of working on these projects," says Bob Boehm, director of UNLV's Energy Research Center.  "The opportunity to work with actual equipment on campus and off site is a valuable way for our students to learn about Amonix and for Amonix to learn about students who could potentially become employees."

Farther north, students and faculty from the University of Nevada, Reno are developing a process that turns wastewater sludge into electricity. Led by Chuck Coronella, associate professor of chemical engineering at UNR and principle investigator for the project, researchers are experimenting with methods to dry sludge to make it burnable for a gasification process that, in turn, can be transformed to electricity.

The team of researchers custom built the processing machine in a UNR laboratory and brought it to the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility for testing.  It uses an innovative process with relatively low temperatures in a fluidized bed of sand and salts to economically produce the biomass fuel from the gooey sludge.

The new patent-pending, low-cost, energy-efficient technology is an experimental carbon-neutral system.  The solid fuel it produces will be analyzed for its suitability to be used for fuel through gasification, and the refrigerator-sized demonstration unit will help researchers determine the optimum conditions for a commercial-sized operation.

"Economically, this makes sense," says Coronella.  "Treatment plants have to get rid of the sludge, and what better way than to process it on-site and use the renewable energy to lower operating costs.  This demonstration gives the university an opportunity to involve students in development of waste-to-energy technology, which ultimately will benefit the community.  It's a win-win for everyone involved."

UNR's Technology Transfer Office, with assistance from the College of Business, is supporting the project with plans to make the system available to hundreds of communities around the country that operate water-treatment plants.

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Contributors: Tony Allen, UNLV; Mike Wolterbeek, UNR; and  Greg Bortolin, DRI.