The idea had brewed in his mind for several years, but only recently has CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby’s vision to create a place for energy education and innovation development come close to a reality. Beneby will reveal plans for the EPIcenter during a kickoff event at Our Lady of the Lake University on Wednesday that starts at 9 a.m. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) will also speak at the big unveil.
The “EPI” stands for “energy, partnership, and innovation.” Almost all of the specific details about the EPIcenter, currently seeking official nonprofit status, are “conceptual” as CPS Energy and its partners collect donations and round up board members – but what is certain is that the center will be housed at the long-vacant Mission Road Power Plant on the Mission Reach (see a rough-draft rendering above).
The center will be unique in the country in terms of combining education, research and development, and an innovation think tank in one spot, said CPS Energy Vice President of Public Affairs and Brand Management Jenna Saucedo. The center will educate and promote the publicly owned utility’s New Energy Economy initiative that promotes clean energy, technologic innovation, and energy efficiency.
“We want it to be the, well, the epicenter – a hub for energy innovation right here in San Antonio,” Saucedo said. “Doyle (Beneby) is always taking trips to energy (symposiums and conferences) in places like London and New York … why not here?”
So far, a total of about $15 million has been donated towards the EPIcenter from OCI Solar Power, Silver Spring Networks, and Landis+Gyr – all companies that have contracts with CPS Energy for solar panels, smart grid installation/maintenance, and smart meters respectively. Organizers – and eventually the EPIcenter board – will be reaching out to state and federal grants, energy and technology companies, and philanthropists around the world to help fund the center.
The center will be funded entirely by private donation or grant dollars – “we committed as an organization that we won’t be using any ratepayer dollars,” Saucedo said.
Not knowing the details of programming or what the building itself will require, CPS Energy Senior Director of Business Development David Jungman could only ball-park total size and cost. The more than 150,000 sq. ft. EPIcenter will cost anywhere from $30-50 million – but could be done in phases.
The power plant, originally called “Station B” and eventually “Queen Mary” by older CPS Energy employees, was constructed in 1909 to house one of the first turbogenerator units in town, using water from the San Antonio River to cool its operation. Over the years, these generators were updated with more modern units until 2004 when the Mission Road Power Plant was retired and the site was cleaned up about four years ahead of schedule to encourage development along the Mission Reach.
“They’ve already dismantled all the equipment and the (land has been) environmentally remediated,” Jungman said. “(The building) is in good shape to do something with it.”
The three main programming and architectural components – still all conceptual – can be broken down into three categories: education, think tank, and research and development.
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Beneby’s strongest desire and vision for the EPIcenter is to make it a place of learning for the community, Saucedo said. “It’s a significant component … ranging from elementary up to college (students).”
A museum of sorts will be created with exhibits – like an old turbine and a brand-new solar panel – that “take you from old to new” in terms of technology, look, employees, etc. One can imagine a “How Electricity Works” exhibit. The building itself is an opportunity to educate with low-impact design, LEED standards, passive and active solar power, and other energy-efficient features, Saucedo said.
Essentially, organizers want a “Geekdom feel” to at least one section of the building – a co-working, collaborative, creative, space where energy partners like OCI can come in and present ideas or new technology. This would also be the element that would include space for an international conference.
Research and Development (R&D)
The FAB Lab is where the metaphorical rubber hits the road – er, rather, where the sunlight hits the silicon. The “Fabrication Laboratory,” a small-scale workshop (yes, I had to Google FAB Lab after talking with Saucedo), will be where academia, energy companies, CPS Energy, and the community come together to find “that next step in the evolution of the new energy economy.”
For instance, if UTSA wants to research a new energy-saving method or if OCI wanted to showcase emerging technology they’re working on, this would be the place.
Including commercial spaces, community events, and art elements are not off of the drawing board either, Saucedo said.
A restaurant? A weekly yoga class on a plaza? Bike parking? The hope is to have several elements that connect the facility to the San Antonio River, Mission Trail, and surrounding neighborhood.
Before all this is planned out, Saucedo said, the first step is to form the EPIcenter board.
“CPS Energy will have a majority of representation to make sure it’s hitting the mark of the vision that our CEO has laid out,” she said, but “we need those folks from outside of Texas and maybe outside the U.S.” to truly make this an international innovation hub.
The EPIcenter board will eventually select an executive director and then the project design and bidding process can begin.
This story was originally published on Tuesday, May 19, 2015.
*Featured/top image: A preliminary rendering of what the EPIcenter could look like. Lake/Flato Architects and CPS Energy.