New site for Berkeley energy institute

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Environmental campaigners force a change of plan for Californian University.

A former California Department of Health Services building will be demolished to make way for the institute. Credit: Susan Jenkins (EBI)

The University of California, Berkeley, has proposed a third site for its Energy Bioscience Institute (EBI) in an attempt to house a $500 million research programme funded by the oil company BP.

The 10-year bioenergy research programme, which started in 2007, pays for about 200 researchers and students in several buildings across the Berkeley campus. Up to 75 more researchers may join the programme in future. There are another 100 researchers at a partner facility at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

But plans to bring all the Berkeley researchers under one roof by building the EBI have hit obstacles. The first two proposed sites in the hills above the main campus met legal and community resistance over possible environmental problems, which have pushed back the expected completion date of the facility from 2011 to at least 2013.

The 'Helios West' labs are now slated for the site of an abandoned public-health building near the university's main campus in Berkeley. If approved by local government officials, the EBI would have nearly 6,000 square metres of space. Research at the site is to focus on sustainable and carbon-neutral sources of energy.

Show me the money

Although officials at the university are optimistic that the site will be approved this time, they still need the state of California to sell US$70 million in bonds to raise money for the construction of the facility. The University of California system is being hammered by state budget cuts, and work on many buildings has been halted across the 10-campus system, and planned projects put on ice (see 'Cuts bite in California').

Construction costs for the EBI and for a related nanotech research facility will total $185 million. The remaining $115 million is being raised from philanthropic donations, officials say.

The nanotech research building — to conduct photovoltaic and electrochemical solar-energy research — will be located near the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, near where the EBI was first planned. Four sites there are under review by the university, with a decision expected within about a month. The university, which hopes the chosen site will not meet the same resistance from environmental campaigners the larger EBI complex experienced, will then seek approval from the local government.

"Researchers are excited about the Helios West site" due its proximity to the main campus and easier access, says Chris Somerville, the EBI's director. But, he adds, "Berkeley is a complicated environment; everything is opposed by someone".

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Dalton, R. New site for Berkeley energy institute. Nature (2009) doi:10.1038/news.2009.807

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