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UC presents revised plan for housing Helios research

New proposal calls for two sites for solar-energy program

| 03 August 2009

University of California representatives are presenting to state government officials newly revised plans for housing the Helios research initiatives that will explore promising new solar-energy technologies.

The previous plan to house the Helios effort called for a single, consolidated facility on UC-owned land at the LBNL site. The new proposal calls for the Helios research endeavors to be housed in two physically separate and independent buildings: one in downtown Berkeley and a smaller building at UC's LBNL site.

In 2007 the state authorized the use of $70 million in lease-revenue bonds to support the $185-million Helios construction project. With the University now proposing changes in facility configuration — but not in the total construction cost or square footage — authorization from state officials is being sought before the revised plan is presented to the UC Board of Regents for approval. 

University officials hope that the benefits of the revised proposal will expedite construction at a time when there is an urgent need for new, sustainable, and carbon-neutral sources of energy.

The new proposal was prompted by information developed and community input received during the design and environmental review processes. University planning officials say the two-facility solution would be mutually beneficial for the city and the university because it would reduce impacts, costs, and delays related to the site that had been under consideration.

The University has identified the proposed site for the larger of the two facilities — on UC-owned property west of the central UC Berkeley campus, along Berkeley Way between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street (the former state Department of Health Services site). This building, referred to as Helios West, would encompass roughly 75 percent of the space formerly planned for the single, consolidated facility. The site would house the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) and complementary bioengineering programs. EBI's primary research objectives include the development of a new generation of carbon-neutral biofuels, as well as a thorough examination of their potential environmental, social, and economic impacts.

The precise location of Helios West would be determined based on campus and city land-use goals, and on site-specific design and environmental analyses. The proposed location in downtown Berkeley would not preclude the University from proceeding with plans to create a community-health campus on the same site, consistent with the objectives of the city's downtown area plan. This location would also place the facility close to UC Berkeley's many bioscience research programs in the northwest quadrant of the campus, providing broad research synergies for EBI.

A second, smaller building, devoted to the development of new photovoltaic and electrochemical solar-energy systems is envisioned to be located on UC's LBNL site, preserving valuable synergies between lab researchers involved in nanoscale work, while ensuring efficient collaboration with researchers based on the Berkeley campus. The relatively small building size (projected at 21,000 usable square feet) would allow for selection of a site that avoids or significantly reduces environmental and aesthetic impacts. Four separate sites on the LBNL campus are currently being evaluated, all of which are served by existing roadways and utilities.
In addition to meeting with state officials, the University has informed local elected officials and community members about the proposed change in configuration of the research facilities.

In letters to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and members of the city council, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau explained the reasons for and benefits of the revised plan.

"I firmly believe effective, sustainable, and socially responsible solutions to global climate change will rely on robust partnerships that marshal the combined forces of the public, private, and academic sectors," the chancellor wrote. "I am also convinced that constructive collaboration is a necessary ingredient for success on the local level as much as it is nationally and internationally, and we will proceed with that goal in mind."

The full text of the letter is available online.