Energy science

Smack-dab in middle of Nebraska in the fall of 2005, a farmer in the Broken Bow area planted a seed. Since then, Darrell Nelson’s visionary idea for an energy center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has grown into a more than a $75 million investment in technology that is benefiting the entire Cornhusker state.

“Darrell was brilliant, and a true visionary,” said Alan Dostal, director of research at Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD).

Nelson, a farmer who served 26 years on the NPPD board of directors, helped create the Nebraska Center for Energy Research at UNL in 2006. Since then, NPPD has invested $14 million into the project, which has grown into more than $75 million with additional, external and federal grants. In all, the project has resulted in 102 NPPD-seed funded research projects so far.

With NPPD’s investment over the past 13 years, the research center has helped produce new technologies and systems that have enhanced Nebraska’s energy sources and ultimately improved the quality of life and economic opportunities for every Nebraskan.

From groundbreaking research on ethanol and improvements in solar cell technology to wind forecasting and battery innovation (among other projects), the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences has made the most of NPPD’s commitment. This includes engaging more than 300 students at UNL to participate in the field of energy sciences research.

In the early years, much of the center’s focus was on ethanol, which is crucial to Nebraska farmers and plays a significant role in the state’s economy.

“NPPD really looked at it as an investment in opportunities for our customers. It’s really a form of encouraging economic development,” Dostal said.

“With ethanol, our researchers were able to establish that ethanol is a greenhouse gas-reducing product, so it’s better for the environment. The energy center worked with the California Air and Resources Board to help them see the benefits of corn-based ethanol.”

That research led to an increase in the use of ethanol in California, and, consequently, the U.S., Dostal said. Which, in turn, benefited Nebraska corn farmers whose crop is used to help produce the renewable fuel.

“That research provided a huge value – it was very significant work done here at the university through our investment,” Dostal said.

Next up for NPPD and the Nebraska Center for Energy Research: carbon management.

“If there’s a way to do it with an agricultural focus, that’s what we want to do. Again, this is all about engaging Nebraskans to solve energy problems,” Dostal said.

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