Transforming Sunlight into Energy: UNC Charlotte fuels energy research and advances the future of the solar industry

It’s just after 6 a.m. on June 21, 2018, and the sun is beginning to rise on the longest day of the year. For most people, the summer solstice is just another long, hot summer day, but for the solar industry it marks the day with the most potential sunlight and, more importantly, the day with the most potential to generate solar energy.

Few industries are experiencing the rate of growth seen in the solar industry. According to the 2017 Solar Jobs Census, from 2012 to 2017, one of every 100 new jobs was in the solar industry, which now employs approximately 250,000 U.S. workers.

As the industry grows, North Carolina continues to cement its place among the solar energy leaders in the United States.

"In North Carolina we have the second-highest capacity of any state to connect solar power to the grid – behind only California," said Dr. Mike Mazzola, executive director of UNC Charlotte’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC). "Actually, we’re number one in utility-scale solar power, because a lot of California’s generation is from residential roof-top solar panels."

As North Carolina’s urban research university, UNC Charlotte’s mission is to deliver high-quality, high-impact research that addresses regional needs to improve and support its citizens and industry. Considering the state’s emergence within the solar energy landscape, this mission makes the William States Lee College of Engineering’s solar energy work extremely important.

Solar power production in North Carolina is expected to grow even faster in the next decade, thanks in part to N.C. House Bill 589. The measure, a collaboration between utility officials and solar interests, establishes a competitive bidding program and a solar power leasing program.

"By allowing third-party solar producers to sell power to the grid, residential solar production in North Carolina will take off in the next few years," noted Mazzola. "With South Carolina and Georgia also adding capacity, making this region is an even greater solar producer."

A growing solar industry creates an increased demand for solar engineers to fill the workforce required to design, build, operate and maintain it. To prepare these future engineers, the Lee College of Engineering offers numerous solar-related educational programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

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Originally published June 21, 2018.

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