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New solar generation research facility in the works near UW
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New solar generation research facility in the works near UW

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Energy resources tested as Western states see soaring demand

This photo shows some of the 30,000 solar panels that make up the Public Service Co. of New Mexico's 2-megawatt photovoltaic array in Albuquerque. A new technology firm in Wyoming has ambitious plans to create a three-megawatt solar generation research facility a few miles from the university's campus. 

A technology company envisions transforming the University of Wyoming into a beacon for solar energy innovation nationwide.

The new firm, called 9H Energy Development LLC, has ambitious plans to create a solar generation research facility three miles from the university’s campus. Developers will work in tandem with faculty and students at UW’s College of Engineering and Applied Science to learn and test out solar energy technology.

The company aims to construct the non-commercial 0.5-megawatt solar facility entirely on private land owned by 9H Ranch, located alongside Interstate 80 in Albany County. The ranch includes 12,000 acres of flat land with access to two transmission lines and two electrical substations, according to the company. The initial phase of the project will take up about five acres.

“The idea behind this research center is quite simple,” Paul Bonifas, director of operations at 9H Energy, told the Star-Tribune. “It’s to attract not only the best professors in the renewable energy sphere, but also students who want to focus their studies on renewable energy. We want them to come to UW.”

Gene Humphrey, co-founder of 9H Energy, owns the ranch land. The UW alum studied mechanical engineering at the school and wants to give back to both his alma mater and Wyoming through a philanthropic project. Humphrey is also the president of the Nevada-based technology company, International Test Solutions.

The team at 9H Energy moved one step closer to realizing their goal of establishing a solar research center on Tuesday. The company secured a conditional use permit from the county, Albany County Planning Director David Gertsch confirmed.

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In materials provided to commissioners, 9H Energy made the case for bringing more solar energy development into Wyoming. Laramie provides prime conditions for producing energy through solar panels. Ample sun, elevation and cool winter temperatures help the performance of photovoltaic cells. That said, the state only has 137 megawatts of solar generating capacity installed, ranking 39th nationwide in solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Eventually, the team hopes to establish a hub for renewable energy innovation and equip its facility with an additional 2.5 megawatts of capacity. They believe doing so will generate more jobs and economic activity for the state too.

The company anticipates breaking ground at the site before the end of the year. But in the meantime, it has already started facilitating a partnership with Cameron Wright, UW’s interim dean of the College of Engineering, and 31 students. The students have divided up into seven teams and will submit proposals on both solar panels and energy storage technology designs. The team with the winning proposal will receive a $5,000 prize.

“We’ve made long-term commitments in professorships, research, grants and student internships to turn the university into the premier center for renewable energy, and specifically solar energy, in the country and the world,” Bonifas said. “What’s really exciting for the students is that they are competing to solve real business challenges in a very rapidly evolving technological field.”

Bonifas obtained his degrees in petroleum and chemical engineering from UW, and has experience working in the oil and gas sector. But he considers solar energy development to be an important part of the state’s energy portfolio, especially as Wyoming strives to diversify its economy.

“Right now, we definitely understand the pragmatic approach to having a stable grid. You need that baseline generation from traditional energy sources,” he said of the state’s coal, oil and gas industries. “Solar is just a way to supplement that.”

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry and the environment at @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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