Energy research park inspires local plans

Phil Castle, The Business Times

An energy research park in Houston and the collaboration between industry and academia there offer inspiration for what could be a similar operation in Mesa County, albeit on a much smaller scale.

“There’s potential for at least some part of that here,” said Michael Burke, a lawyer who serves as chairman of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

Burke was among a delegation of 13 people from Mesa County that toured the University of Houston Energy Research Park and also met with executives from energy companies with operations in Western Colorado.

The chamber organized the two-day event as part of ongoing efforts to implement an economic development plan for Mesa County. One of three major goals for the plan is to establish the county as an epicenter for energy research.

“It was an eye-opening trip,” Burke said.

The park, located on a 74-acre complex that once served as headquarters of the Schlumberger energy services company, includes a total of than 700,000 square feet of space in 15 buildings. University students and faculty as well as energy companies work there to conduct research into not only oil and natural gas production, but also solar and wind energy. The park also includes a business incubation operation to turn research into new ventures.

“It’s everything you could imagine wanting to have,” Burke said.

Jon Maraschin, executive director of the Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction and another member of the delegation, took note of the new businesses operating at the park as well as the collaboration between industry and academia. “They have the culture figured out.”

Maraschin said the same kind of culture exists in Mesa County in the Economic Development Partners, a broad coalition of business organizations, government entities and academic institutions involved in economic development. Members of the group were represented in the delegation to Houston.

Maraschin said its impractical to try to replicate the University of Houston Energy Park in Mesa County or, for that matter, similar programs in place at the University of Colorado or Colorado State University. Nonetheless, there are opportunities to develop a facility that would address local needs and fill niches in a fiscally responsible manner, he said.

Kelly Flenniken, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership and another member of the delegation, said Mesa County offers some advantages with its close proximity to energy exploration and production in the Piceance Basin. “In the Piceance we get an incredible laboratory to do research in our area.”

Meanwhile, efforts already are under way at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction to promote energy research, said Derek Wagner, director of strategic initiatives at CMU and yet another member of the delegation.

The Unconventional Energy Center at CMU has awarded the first in what’s expected to be a series of grants funding applied research and work force development, Wagner said.

CMU also worked with the energy industry in developing a landman and energy management program as a concentration for a bachelor’s of business administration degree.

Additional collaboration is evident, he said, in the programs and research at Western Colorado Community College in Grand Junction, a part of CMU.

Because CMU is a teaching rather than research institute, the key to developing an energy research epicenter will be to find ways in which to also enrich the mission of educating students, Wagner said.

Flenniken said the next step in exploring the creation of an energy park in Mesa County will be to gather members of the delegation for a meeting to discuss impressions and ideas.

It also will be important to continue to work with the energy industry to find ways to address its needs and foster partnerships, she said.

Burke said the University of Houston Energy Research Park is too big to replicate in whole in Mesa County, but still offers a look at what could be possible in offering parts of a similar operation locally.

“There’s a lot of potential.”