UL studies solar farming, despite pushback to renewable energy Louisiana expected to lose out on renewable energy job boom

Professor Terrence Chambers reflects on his solar research lab at UL Lafayette on Aug. 9, 2021. Photo by Wes Muller

This story was first reported by Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.

Just over a mile northwest of the Cajundome is a 5-acre plot of land flanked by neighborhoods of single-family homes and a commercial area to the north — not the type of zone one would normally expect to see a power plant — yet there one is, silently generating enough electricity to run 250 homes without a hint of pollution, waste or human traffic. It is UL Lafayette’s solar farm.

Its rows of solar panels generate much more than electricity. Officially called the UL Photovoltaic Applied Research and Testing Lab, the solar farm is a tool that allows the university’s engineers and scientists to study and test some of the latest renewable energy technologies from across the nation.

Chambers explains some of his research into solar energy at the university. Photo by Wes Muller

In charge of the facility is Professor Terrence Chambers, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering and is the director of the Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Energy Center. Instrumental in building the $4 million solar farm, Chambers funded the project through a fossil fuels company that needed to donate to the community as part of settling pollution violations with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since it was built in 2019, the PART lab has allowed Chambers and his graduate students to study several different types of solar panels — the more traditional monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels and the more recently developed thin-film panels, which are about the width of a typical window pane. They are also testing and studying technologies invented by private companies that pay the university for their research. The students can then publish that data and apply it to other parts of their work.

Solar power isn’t their only field of interest. UL’s Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Energy Center also researches wind, hydroelectric and carbon capture technologies, as well as energy efficiency applications for air-conditioning, ventilation and so-called “smart” systems for buildings.

Chambers has added several renewable energy classes to UL’s College of Engineering, which now, for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year, offers degree programs with a minor in renewable energy.

Apart from research, the PART lab also offers workforce development training for professionals in the renewable energy sector. The solar farm features physical training platforms that are built to match the specifications of different roof styles — residential and commercial — except the roofs are on the ground, allowing workers to learn installation techniques without the risk of falling.

For Chambers, the solar farm, the classes and all the research translates to one thing: jobs.

“Across the country, there are more jobs now in the renewable energies than in fossil fuels,” Chambers said, adding that the only state where that isn’t true is Louisiana.

Currently, more than 70% of all the energy generation additions in the U.S. are solar and wind, according to a report published by UL’s energy center. The renewables boom is being driven by a 90% drop in costs for solar technologies.

Louisiana currently has the capability, knowledge and workforce to convert its entire energy sector to one that uses solar and wind, Chambers said. Louisiana workers who are losing their jobs in the oil and gas industry have the ideal skills to make a fast and easy jump to the renewables sector, but some policymakers have been reluctant to permit new energy sources that are not as familiar to them as oil and gas, he said.

This training platform, located at UL’s solar research lab, is built to the specifications of a typical residential roof in order to train workers on proper installation techniques. Photo by Wes Muller

For every state except Louisiana, double-digit employment growth is expected in the renewables sector over the next 30 years. Louisiana is the only state in the nation with a forecast of net job losses, he said.

“With regard to solar in Louisiana right now, the problems are not technical,” Chambers said. “It’s overcoming the reluctance. It’s a cultural thing and it’s a regulatory thing. There’s money and projects that are economically feasible and ready to happen right now, and somebody else will pay for them.”

Efforts to put solar farms in Louisiana have been drawing increased scrutiny over the past several months as farmers complain that solar companies are outbidding them for land around the state.

Political pressure has caused a few rural parishes to pass moratoriums on solar farms — meaning that landowners can’t lease their property for solar farm use in those communities. This spring, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, also pushed through legislation suggesting the Louisiana Economic Development agency stop issuing state tax credits to solar companies. Lawmakers also tasked the Department of Natural Resources with creating regulations for solar farms — which solar proponents worry could discourage investment in Louisiana.

In June, Senate President Pro Tempore Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, suggested that solar is an enemy to the oil and gas industry. “When did we become a solar state?” Mizell said on the senate floor. “I thought we were an oil and gas state.”

Such statements, Chambers said, are indicative of the reluctance and misinformation preventing the well-paying jobs in the nation’s fastest growing energy sector from coming to Louisiana. Instead, those jobs are going to other states. About half the solar panels on UL’s farm were made in Mississippi.

Permitting and politics are the only things stopping what would otherwise be an immediate influx of a multibillion-dollar industry into our state, he said.

“It’s not a matter of ‘Can we do it?’.” Chambers said. “All we need to do is get out of the way.”