Powerhouse Energy Campus marks sunny opening as 'grand social experiment,' unique energy research model

By: Steve Friday April 18, 2014 0 comments Tags: Bill Ritter, Bryan Willson, CSU Energy Institute, Dr. Rick Miranda, Fort Collins, Gerry Horak, Sundolier, The Neenan Company

By Steve Porter


FORT COLLINS - On a warm and sunny mid-April day, a former power plant once abandoned by the city marked its transformation from crumbling deterioration into a showcase of clean energy research and technology.

State and local officials, along with representatives of Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, convened Thursday to help celebrate the grand opening of the Colorado State University Powerhouse Energy Campus near downtown Fort Collins.

"The Powerhouse is a grand social experiment," said Bryan Willson, director of the CSU Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory still housed in the remodeled old power plant, originally built in 1935.

Willson described a vision of the Powerhouse as a place where energy researchers work alongside faculty and students from a variety of energy-related disciplines.

"The hypothesis is the (creative) process is accelerated when you're bumping into these other disciplines on a daily basis," Willson said.

The $18.5 million Powerhouse includes the existing 35,000-square-foot Engines and Energy Conversion Lab connected to a four-story, 65,000-square-foot expansion.

The expansion includes office spaces, meeting rooms, research labs, and room for 25 startup companies in an onsite incubator. In a partnership with Fort Collins-based Rocky Mountain Innosphere, the Innosphere will provide management of startups primarily coming out of CSU laboratories.

Throughout the expected LEED platinum-certified structure is an array of innovative lighting, heating and cooling systems along with energy experimentation areas.

Up on the Powerhouse roof is a solar display and a Sundolier lighting system that draws sunlight down into large interior spaces, flooding them with light.

Willson said vertical axis wind turbines will be erected on the Powerhouse roof -- modern substitutes for smokestacks that once sat atop the old power plant.

The roof will also serve as a laboratory for biomass algae production, he said.

"This whole building will be an energy laboratory, training students on energy technologies," he said.

Willson thanked Fort Collins-based The Neenan Company design-and-construction firm, which accomplished the task of tying together buildings from different eras while building a new one with state-of-the-art capabilities.

"We wanted a partner that would work with us and understand every aspect of the building, and we were able to do that," Willson said.

More than a building

Dr. Rick Miranda, CSU provost, said the Powerhouse will be more than just a cool new building.

"This is not just a building that will have some great stuff," he said. "There's a lot of good stuff that's going to happen here, but this is a space that is dedicated to ideas and moving those ideas forward," Miranda said.

Miranda praised the idea of blending academic disciplines at the Powerhouse.

"This facility is going to kick those collaborations to the next level," he said.

Bill Ritter, director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at CSU, said the Powerhouse will be unique in its approach to seeking a synergy by combining disciplines with a focus on energy technology.

"There's no other facility in the U.S. that understands this interface," he said. "It makes Colorado State and this laboratory unique in the United States."

The Center for the New Energy Economy, which advocates for clean energy technologies, will be housed within the Powerhouse, and Ritter said he is looking forward to working in an eclectic, creative atmosphere.

"It's such a privilege to be housed with people working from a research perspective," he said.

Fort Collins Mayor Karen Wietkunat thanked CSU for incorporating the old power plant into the Powerhouse's construction.

"Thank you for preserving over 80 years of energy history for the city of Fort Collins," she said. "The campus here will be a great catalyst for creating development for the whole city."

Weitkunat said the city, which leases the former power plant building to CSU for $25 a year, expects the Powerhouse will enhance Fort Collins' growing reputation as a place of innovation.

Global market connection

"The Powerhouse will bring international research that will connect Fort Collins to the world and the global marketplace," she said.

Fort Collins councilman Gerry Horak, who helped negotiate the agreement 20 years ago with CSU to lease the old power plant and convert it into the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, praised the culmination of that partnership with CSU's opening of the Powerhouse.

"That kind of entrepreneurship to take over a liability and make it into an asset is amazing," Horak said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, who capped off a line of grand opening ceremony speakers, said the Powerhouse has the potential to help enhance the state's economy by finding ways to take ideas and turn them into companies and jobs.

"This is the ultimate greenhouse for that kind of transformation," Hickenlooper said. "We've got lots of ideas but not a lot of jobs coming out yet.

"This is the ideal greenhouse for that to take place."

Hickenlooper said the Powerhouse's opening was another reason why Fort Collins is developing a reputation for innovation in the state.

"I hold up a lot of what's happening in Fort Collins as a model for the rest of the state," he said.

Powerhouse Energy Campus will operate under the umbrella of the CSU Energy Institute, a virtual institute of energy-related academic centers at CSU.

Closing the grand opening ceremony before an audience of hundreds, Willson declared the facility ready to begin its new life.

"The Powerhouse energy facility is now open for impact," he said.

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