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An energy college in Memphis? Private group sees 8,000 students

A secretive group in Middle Tennessee wants to build from scratch one of the biggest colleges in the Southeast, and the only college in the nation to be completely dedicated to energy.

They promise a school that will have an eventual enrollment of 8,000 students, 500 teachers poached from other energy programs around the nation, thousands of associated jobs and an annual economic impact greater than $250 million.

It's the United States Energy College. All it would take to land it is a "package of state and local cash incentives," according to the proposal, and 340 acres of contiguous, wooded land.

"This idea has been around a long time, and there's a lot of frustration that there is no college devoted to the study of energy," says Don Reynolds. "If all you want to do is petroleum engineering you can go to Tulane or Houston; there's a number of schools that do one thing or the other. If you want a comprehensive education you're out of luck."

Reynolds is the front man for the group that wants to start the college. He's a former director of community development in Burnet, Texas (pop. 4,735) who now lives in Austin, Texas. He's been shopping the idea of an energy college in both the Nashville and Memphis areas, but refuses to identify the plan's backers.

His request for proposals, dated Oct. 30., says U.S. Energy College will be the first college in the nation devoted exclusively to preparing people for careers in oil, gas, coal, nuclear, utilities, energy transportation, wind and solar. A majority of students would come from foreign countries. The campus would also have 2,400 double-occupancy units of student housing.

Memphis is the first choice. Although there's no significant energy industry here, Reynolds says it is in close proximity to many major energy centers. That ranges from Kentucky coal country to the gas fields of the Gulf of Mexico, to Illinois, which has the nation's highest concentration of nuclear power.

A focus of the school would be on diverse and new energy sources, he says, such as oil shale, which is present in West Tennessee. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there are 2.6 trillion barrels of recoverable oil in shale, with 2.1 trillion of it in the U.S.

An alignment with an existing university would seem easier, such as the Herff College of Engineering at the University of Memphis. That would bring the Energy College under the U of M's accreditation, making students eligible for financial aid.

The U of M welcomed the corporate involvement leading to the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management. Likewise that which went into the FedEx Institute of Technology.

Reynolds himself suggested a linkage with the U of M or the University of Tennessee, but backers of the college didn't like the idea.

"There are cheaper ways to do this than to go out and build one from scratch," Reynolds says. "They say they've tried and haven't gotten anywhere."

Nobody at the U of M has ever heard of the U.S. Energy College.

Ehud Ronn, director of the Center for Energy Studies at the University of Texas, is intrigued by the idea of an energy-focused college.

"I find this very, very interesting," he says. "But I think it's going to be a challenge to build something like this."

Finding, and then bringing together, qualified faculty members could be one of the energy college's biggest hurdles.

Ronn, echoing the thoughts of other experts, says Tennessee may not be the best place to build such an institution. Houston, which has a plethora of energy companies and resources, is a logical place for an energy college, Ronn says.

Several universities and colleges in the U.S. offer students energy-related classes, from energy economics to nuclear engineering, but no one is offering a specific energy degree.

At $24,000 per year, U.S. Energy College would have nearly the highest tuition in the state. With 8,000 students, the only local schools with a higher enrollment would be the U of M and Southwest Tennessee Community College.

The Tennessee Department of State does not list U.S. Energy College, or anything similar, among its registered charitable organizations. The college also does not appear on the department's list of exempt organizations, which is where most private schools are listed.

Nobody's heard of the Energy College, Reynolds says, because it hasn't been built yet, and therefore it's not accredited.

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