Brookings Mountain West names UNLV as model for energy work 

Think tank says Intermountain West is already equipped to lead the nation in renewable energy innovation

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Brookings Mountain West named UNLV’s Solar Solutions Center as a model for the kind of work in which it wants to see the federal government invest $1-$2 billion annually.

The suggestion came in a report called “Centers of Invention: Leveraging the Mountain West Innovation Complex for Energy System Transformation,” released Sept. 1.

The report calls for the establishment of four to six energy innovation centers and slates two for construction in Nevada.

“The nation should look again to the Intermountain West and its world-class innovation assets as it seeks to work out a clean energy future,” the report says.

The centers would advance renewable energy research and implementation by connecting research institutions in the six involved states with private and public partners.

The projects would be based on the use of resources available in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho and Colorado — the region Brookings identifies as the “Intermountain West.”

The study recognizes a “‘green’ ethos” in the Intermountain West and the pioneering attitude and tendency toward collaboration that authors Mark Muro and Sarah Rahman say supports their plan.

The paper states that the region’s history as a primary source of natural resources for the U.S. has led to a deep familiarity in the area with alternative energy resources and systems.

“By dint of that history,” the study says, “the region already has significant experience with siting and developing energy projects, bringing energy to market and distributing it to customers — all of which can be leveraged in service of new renewable energy technologies as well.”

The study recommends Southern Nevada and UNLV as a hub for solar energy research. It suggests a focus on geothermal energy in Northern Nevada but also says the state could conduct work in nuclear energy and biofuels.

The UNLV Solar Solutions Center was founded with seed money from the UNLV Foundation, but has asked for $45 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to advance its research projects.

UNLV Vice President for Research Ron Smith said the center would be glad to join similar organizations in the Intermountain West to work on energy development and reform — something he called a “national issue.”

If the grant comes through, the center will launch divisions for research and development, policy and analysis and business outreach.

Brookings Mountain West officials have said that the initiative does not anticipate immediate action to fund the project the study suggests. But Muro, a senior fellow and policy director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, said institutions should start forming partnerships with private-sector organizations now.

UNLV’s partnerships with Pulte Homes and NV Energy are examples of the kinds of cooperation Brookings says schools can undertake without federal grants.

But Muro suggested that money from offshore drilling or proposed carbon taxes be used to fund the Intermountain West innovation centers.

That investment could mean more work — especially in Nevada, where joblessness approaches the national high.

Though a multimillion-dollar shortfall in state funding for education is believed to be threatening the state’s economic future, Muro and Rahman recognize other government policies of Intermountain West states as being favorable to green energy industry and, therefore, their proposal.

They also say breadth and depth of clean energy research activities, diverse and growing investments from the private sector into energy initiatives and established industries relevant to clean energy work make the region the perfect fit for a national investment.

Plus, the study asserts, the federal government has already invested billions of research and development dollars into the energy work in the Intermountain West.

In fiscal year 2006, the DOE devoted more than 30 percent of its research and development funds to Intermountain West states — amounting to $2.4 billion — and federal agencies promised $8.6 billion to academic and industrial entities in the region.

In fiscal year 2010, the DOE will spend more than $260 million on federal laboratories in the six states.