A solar research facility at UL Lafayette should be completely operational by the end of June. It is expected to provide energy for the university’s athletics complex and serve as a research and teaching facility.
On Eraste Landry Road there’s a 5-acre field quietly producing enough energy to power 234 homes.
The same 5 acres are efficiently offsetting carbon dioxide at the same time, doing the work of 158 acres of planted forests. That’s equivalent to taking 285 cars off the road.
All of this is the work of rows of solar panels found at 455 Eraste Landry Road, also known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Photovoltaic Applied Research and Testing (PART) Lab.
It was commissioned June 30, but there’s more coming to the property, like five smaller experimental stations and a 40-by-60-foot building to house indoor lab equipment and experiments.
Terry Chambers, a mechanical engineering professor and director of the Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Center at UL Lafayette, hopes the additions will be done by the end of this year.
“I love it,” Chambers said. “They pay me to play with big, cool toys, and who has cooler toys than this?”
All of it is funded by a $4 million donation Louisiana Generating LLC made in 2017. The subsidiary recently was purchased by Cleco.
The site produces 3 percent of the university’s energy, but 19 percent of the energy used by “South Campus,” which includes the Cajun Field area and Blackham Coliseum, the practice field, print shop and more. The goal is to get to 10 percent for the whole campus.
“It’s making an impact,” Chambers said. “We save the university about $10,000 a month on the electricity bill.”
But that’s not the only impact Chambers and the university expect from the solar farm.
It has four purposes — to make power and offset costs for the university, serve as an applied research and testing lab, assist with workforce and economic development for the community, and provide education and outreach.
“I want to make that $4 million have the biggest public impact it can, not just for UL but for the whole state,” Chambers said.
Chambers conducts about two tours a week for school groups, industry leaders and members of the public.
“As part of the university’s sustainability efforts, we wanted to make a living lab for all students,” he said.
He hopes seeing the panels in person helps the next generation understand renewable energy.
He and his students are performing research at the lab, which comprises three types of solar panel — polycrystalline, monocrystalline and thin film.
“This has been designed and placed on the ground (rather than a roof) to do experiments out here,” Chambers said. “We put up three different types of panels to see which works best in Louisiana.”
They’re made in Italy, Mississippi and California and have different prices and efficiency levels.
One kind is said to be best for hot, humid climates. The thin film is cheapest and least efficient, but it can be molded and perhaps fitted to other shapes like shingles for a homeowner who doesn’t like the look of big panels.
The lab also contains different kinds of string inverters and transformers. The standing metal boxes have six pairs of black and red wires coming from them, and they convert the energy from direct current to alternative current.
Another impact Chambers sees PART having is on the future of the economy and workforce in Acadiana.
If they can make these panels in Mississippi, he said, why not in Louisiana?
“If we’re looking to diversity our economy,” Chambers said and pointed to all the panels,” jobs, jobs, jobs.”
These jobs aren’t so different from the oil and gas jobs many already are trained for in manufacturing, installation, distribution and maintenance.
“And these are good high-paying construction jobs, just like if you were building a rig,” he said.
The median salary for solar photovoltaic installers was just under $40,000 in 2017. They made about $19 an hour. And the market is growing faster than average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook.
“There were more new solar and wind plants installations in the U.S. than coal or natural gas (last year),” Chambers said. “There are three million renewable energy workers in the U.S. That’s more than oil and gas.”
Plus, there are the jobs in design and management. Chambers is teaching a solar energy systems design class this semester. It’s the first class of its kind and has 32 students.
He’s training the designers and engineers who would design these kinds of projects.
Those jobs come with a median salary of more than $97,000 and require a bachelor’s degree, according to the handbook.
The solar farm can serve as a training facility, especially once Chambers gets the experimental stations.
He plans to have one in the shape of a flat commercial roof and another like the sloped roof of a home. People could learn to install them on such locations and practice from the safety of the ground.
Chambers or other industry partners also could run five different experiments at a time and tweak the tilt angle or direction the panels face. And they could be the go-to for industry leaders wanting to test “new solar gadgets,” he said.
But they can do some training now with what already is in place.
“We can shut off a (row of panels) and teach them how to put it on,” Chambers said. “That’s workforce training.”
Chambers has been a professor at UL for 21 years and a mechanical engineer about 33.
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Leigh Guidry, email@example.com
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