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Sun shines on Fort Lewis College solar park with new funding from state

Sun shines on Fort Lewis College solar park with new funding from state

Friday, June 19, 2020

Fort Lewis College and industry partners received funding for a one-of-a-kind solar park that will not only produce energy but will generate research and development in the advanced industries of aerospace, renewables, and solar infrastructure.

The initial build of The Fort Lewis Solar Innovation Park will include a new two-megawatt solar installation and a laboratory for field study on the Old Fort Lewis property in Hesperus. The Office of Economic Development and International Trade allocated $1.5M to The Park as part of the state’s Advanced Industry Accelerator Grant Program. The grant is one of the largest OEDIT investments in recent years.

"Fort Lewis is a great place to be an entrepreneur, and now because of The Park, it’s a great place to be an entrepreneur in renewables."

Steve Elias, dean of the School of Business Administration

FLC’s Center for Innovation, which opened in February, was the launchpad for the project. Some of the first meetings and brainstorming sessions that took place in the new space were about The Park, and included SOBA alumni who are now all-stars in the aerospace field and local solar industry experts. The group ultimately pitched to OEDIT on the day of the center’s ribbon cutting.

“The Center for Innovation is a lightning rod for creativity and entrepreneurship,” says John Witchel, founder of King Energy. “It was one of those moments that all the right people were in the room and lightning struck.”

The Fort Lewis Solar Innovation Park is a collaboration between Fort Lewis College’s Center for Innovation, La Plata Electric Association, Teledyne Brown, Lockheed Martin Space, and King Energy. And the partners are interested in more than just putting up a few solar panels.

The Old Fort property is distinguished by its rural, rocky landscape – atypical for solar development, which means it’s perfect for infrastructure research. The Park’s researchers will test out various solar installations to make the space usable and establish new industry infrastructure options for areas that aren’t flat or graded. The Old Fort’s location is remote in LPEA’s service area, which will take additional research to determine how to get The Park’s energy to the grid. Additionally, research and development relevant to aerospace will take place at The Park.

“Lockheed Martin is proud to be a partner in the establishment of the Fort Lewis Solar Innovation Park,” says Joe Rice, Lockheed Martin Director of Government Relations. “As a leader in deep space exploration, we know how critical solar energy and battery storage are in our country’s pursuits of bringing Americans back to the moon and taking humanity to Mars. The Solar Innovation Park is an exciting opportunity to help create the next generation of engineers and to expand advanced technology applications and economic opportunities in rural Colorado.”

Elias and Center for Innovation partners are elated with The Park’s funding. It’s affirmation and recognition of the kind of success they hoped for in the center – entrepreneurs meeting in a collaborative and inspiring space to brainstorm innovative and game-changing ideas that have huge impacts on the regional economy.

The Park is especially significant because it also builds on the College’s commitment to renewable energy, as a consumer but also as a driver of economic growth for the region and relevant educational opportunities for students in advanced industries.

“The extraction industry was big here, but more recently there’s been job loss,” Elias said. “If we can help people train up to stay in the energy sector but retool to work in renewables, that helps the workforce for sure.”

Students from across campus will be able to access hands-on educational and career development opportunities. Because of The Park’s distance from campus, Elias hopes to set up monitoring stations at the Center for Innovation’s downtown location for students to access data more easily. 

Upon completion, The Park will be immediately self-sustaining from electricity revenues. The project will be completed within 12 months of the grant award.

A total of $1.7M of collaborative infrastructure grants were approved by the Colorado’s Economic Development Commission. Advanced Industry Infrastructure Funding Grants provide state funding to collaborative projects that have a broad, industry-wide impact across one or more of Colorado’s Advanced Industries. Eligible projects must demonstrate solutions that provide workforce training, engage multiple industry partners or advance industry mentorship for Colorado companies.

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