Lafayette has a long-standing reputation of being a hotbed of activity for the oil and gas industry. In many ways, oil and gas has shaped this community into what it is today — one of innovators, an up-and-coming leader in technology, and a fast-growing city of entrepreneurs. Eighty percent of the nation’s offshore oil and gas supply comes from or through Louisiana; and Lafayette Parish has the highest concentration of oil and gas related businesses in the state. Compared to the rest of the U.S., a large percentage of the local population is employed in the mining sector, with other industry groups involved in oil-and-gas-related services. Alongside successful diversification efforts of the past 15 years, energy continues to play a crucial role in our economy. I’ve said for 23 years that the key to diversification is not to diversify away from oil and gas but with, and within, oil and gas.

For those who follow national politics, it is very clear that Washington is pushing for new energy solutions for this country. In previous columns, I have made it clear that an assault on our indigenous oil and gas businesses is not appropriate. With that in mind let us now look at alternatives so that we will continue to be the energy center of the southeastern U.S. Utilizing an existing energy infrastructure, technical workforce and ample natural resources, Lafayette can remain an energy leader even in a changing energy economy. Now is the time to take advantage of federal tax credits and incentives for producing clean energy, including wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydro power and natural gas. The Lafayette Economic Development Authority in collaboration with UL Lafayette and other community partners started the Acadiana Alternative Energy Committee in early 2009 to help develop a viable alternative energy industry in our region. Chaired by UL Lafayette Dean of Engineering Dr. Mark Zappi and Chad Hanks, president of the Lafayette Parish Farm Bureau, the AAEC has held numerous meetings with local stakeholders to discuss strategies for industry development. The AAEC also hosts a monthly lecture series to help educate the community on new opportunities.

Thanks to our strong position in the oil and gas sector, Lafayette already has a solid manufacturing and engineering base that is capable of building the solar panels, wind turbines and biodiesel refineries that will power the nation. UL Lafayette is a leader in alternative energy research and serves as an invaluable community asset for new and existing companies that want to venture into the alternative energy industry. UL Lafayette students from the engineering, architecture and business programs brought global attention to our city when they were selected as one of 20 schools around the world to participate in the 2009 U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. Their solar home, Beausoleil, was designed with traditional Cajun architecture as an inspiration and won in both the “Audience Choice” category and the prestigious “Marketability” category.

Louisiana’s generous state incentives for solar panel installation — 50 percent refundable tax credit, on top of a 30 percent federal tax credit — serves as a great opportunity for emerging solar energy businesses to provide services to local homeowners helping them to lower their energy costs. Additionally, with the recent passage of PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) legislation, consumers may soon have an additional mechanism for financing the up-front costs of a solar panel installation or other energy efficiency home modifications. Energy efficiency and conservation are the low hanging fruit of alternative energy. Lafayette Utilitites System recently announced that it would help consumers monitor their energy use more closely by upgrading to a smart grid. LUS customers can even sell any excess energy they generate from solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal or biomass resources as a credit on their energy bill because of a statewide net metering policy.

Compressed natural gas and combined heat and power, also known as cogeneration, are two other examples of low hanging fruit for the region. Foreign oil has become a major economic and security threat for the U.S., and a major part of the movement toward alternative energy is driven by the desire to produce more energy locally. With the increased supply of natural gas due to recent gas shale discoveries (such as the Haynesville Shale in north Louisiana) and new technological breakthroughs in gas recovery, natural gas can serve as a great alternative transportation fuel to help the U.S. wean itself from foreign oil. Natural gas is the clean energy bridge between fossil fuels and emerging alternative and green energy sources. Transportation fuels (such as the kind you pump into your vehicles weekly) currently account for 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption. By transitioning to CNG, high fuel users, such as distribution companies and local government agencies, can save money on fueling their fleets and at the same time support a locally-produced and cleaner fuel source. Lafayette will soon have its first CNG filling station, and it seems likely that there will be many more to come. CHP, or cogeneration, is an integrated energy system that produces both electricity and heat from a single source (such as natural gas, biomass, waste heat, oil) and can greatly increase the energy efficiency of a facility. This technology is especially valuable to agricultural and industrial energy-users who have high energy demands and waste materials or agricultural products on hand. Using a CHP system, agricultural waste, sewer sludge, wood and other biomass products can be used instead of fossil fuels to produce energy. CHP presents a great cost saving opportunity for our local agricultural and industrial community and an economical way to support energy conservation.

Looking ahead, alternative energy opportunities are numerous for Lafayette. By staying current and expanding into new forms of energy production, Lafayette will maintain its position as a national energy leader well into the future. I encourage those of you who are interested in learning more about these new opportunities to attend one of our Alternative Energy lectures, the full schedule of which can be found on LEDA’s website at www.lafayette.org/aaec.

Gregg Gothreaux is president and chief executive officer of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.

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