UC Merced

UC Merced to teach solar energy skills

Teaching college students how to tap the sun's energy is a hot national trend, and schools in the central San Joaquin Valley aren't being eclipsed.

The University of California campuses at Berkeley and Merced will offer a Fresno program in which students can earn a certificate of expertise in solar energy. Fresno City College could be training students how to install solar panels on roofs as early as next fall.

At California State University, Fresno, some graduate students this fall will start designing a solar project to partially power a hydrogen car, and two professors are developing a new course on renewable energy.

The field is a natural for the sunny Valley, and students could wind up with good-paying jobs.

Solar is part of the green economy of renewable energy and energy-efficient industries that now account for 9 million American jobs and could provide up to 37 million by 2030, officials say.

President Barack Obama is a big advocate, and Congress provided incentives for solar energy conversion in the just-passed stimulus package.

"There are many universities across the United States looking at how they can position themselves in the new energy economy," said Neal Lurie, spokesman for the nonprofit American Solar Energy Society.

Students are doing the same thing, looking to "industries of the future, not industries of the past," Lurie said.

City College student Jeff Dilldine, 21, of Clovis said he sees the future filled with photovoltaic panels on the roofs of homes and businesses trying to save buckets of money on utility bills. He wants to become an electrician and learn how to safely install the panels.

"Look at what solar energy does for us now," Dilldine said. "And we're not anywhere near the peak of what we can get from it. We have the sun a good part of the year. Why not take advantage of it?" Dilldine said he'll be excited to take the first photovoltaic course that City College plans to offer next school year.

Details about the course still are being formulated, but it will focus on the installation of photovoltaic panels, said electrical systems technology instructor Robert Martinez, who will teach the class.

"We're not about theory," Martinez said. "We're about reality. When a new job field opens up, we would be remiss if we didn't offer opportunities for our students."

Jobs that range from $15- to-$22-an-hour now are going unfilled in some solar energy companies, Martinez said.

However, getting a job isn't as easy since the recession began, an industry official said. Some solar workers are looking for jobs now in the Fresno area, said John Brown, president of Solahart, a Fresno company that specializes in using solar energy to heat hot water systems and swimming pools.

The solar panel industry hasn't collapsed, though, despite the economy, Brown said: "I guess green is the thing. I think it is going to be the thing of the future. It's just a question of when."

Students will take six to eight courses over 18 months to two years; some courses could meet five, seven or 10 times. Topics might include how to develop an investment-grade feasibility report for solar projects and how to evaluate solar markets.

Industry experts will be hired to teach in the program, which begins this summer with a one-day seminar on careers in solar energy at the UC Merced Center on Shaw Avenue across from Fashion Fair.

Courses are being planned for the fall and beyond.

"We believe there will be a new generation of green industry and technology here in the Valley and in the state, and solar will play a large role in the growth of that industry," Diana Wu, dean of UC Berkeley Extension said in a statement.

Fresno State in the past offered a course on energy conversion and utilization -- but it didn't include solar power. That course hasn't been taught recently because it was outdated, said Daming Zhang, associate professor of industrial technology.

However, Fresno State is seeking a grant from the federal government to develop a new course and buy equipment for the class, Zhang said. He is working with plant science associate professor Alex Alexandrou to develop the course.

Meanwhile, Zhang received a $25,000 start-up grant from Fresno State's College of Agriculture to begin work on the hydrogen car.

The university could play an important role in the solar energy field by focusing professors and students on developing more efficient photovoltaic panels, said Dick Smith, director of the department of utility management. For example, Smith said, the 3,900 or so panels atop the carport-style parking structures on campus produce less power as the panel temperatures rise.

Smith said he's not sure why power production decreases, but if someone could find a way to keep the panels cooler, it would be a significant step.

The university's annual power bill is about $5 million, and the panels will save $50,000 this year and an estimated $200,000 in 2018, Smith said. Over the life of the project, the estimated savings for the university will be $13 million to $16 million, he said.

With Fresno getting more than 300 days of sunshine a year, it's only natural that Fresno State play a role in harnessing the sun's power, Smith said: "We are in a darn good place to provide leadership in solar development."

To learn more

UC program: www.unex.berkeley.edu/merced

Green economy jobs: www.ases.org/greenjobs

Fresno City College photovoltaic course: call (559) 442-4600, extension 8777.