LAKEWOOD RANCH -- In a state that does little to mandate the production and use of renewable energy, a local college is using a new teaching facility to make solar power a priority for builders and policy makers.
The Lakewood Ranch campus of Everglades University has finished building a solar energy teaching lab that has been two years in the making. Funded in part by rebates from Florida Power & Light, the lab features five brands of electricity-producing solar panels, solar-powered electric vehicle chargers and its own renewable energy major.
The lab's completion marks the school's commitment to making solar energy a fixture in a renewables-reluctant Florida, says Caroline King, vice president of the campus at 6001 Lake Osprey Drive.
"We want to educate people that it works," King said.
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Although Florida has the third-highest solar potential among U.S. states, Florida ranks 12th in the nation for solar energy production. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association, Florida lags in part because it does not require power companies to get a set amount of power generation from renewable sources.
Everglades, which offers bachelor's and master's degrees in a number of pre-professional majors, began building its solar lab in 2012, installing 104 solar panels on the roof of its three-story building and erecting two "solar trees" in the parking lot. Each of those trees hold 12 solar panels that power two vehicle chargers that are constantly in use.
The school also uses power generation software tied into a dedicated page on its website to let students know how much sun-generated electricity is going toward powering the university on any given day.
The school's solar facilities have been a teaching tool since they were installed. The school's construction management degree requires courses in alternative and renewable energy. Other courses that use the lab include land and energy management, alternative and renewable energy management, and an environmental policy and management major.
Diana Linville, one of the first four students to graduate with an energy management bachelor's degree last spring, jumped into learning about the renewable energy business after working a full career in the health and safety field with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Now that she has finished the Everglades program, she wants to get involved in energy policy, whether as a project manager at a solar field or in promoting the technology in Tallahassee.
"I'm just looking at the jobs that are out there," she said.
How the lab works
The teaching lab is focused on the practical side of renewable energy. Students are able to compare the abilities of photovoltaic cells manufactured by several different companies to turn Florida sunshine into electricity. From there, they study how solar power can be incorporated into residential, commercial and government building projects.
A recent "capstone" class for students finishing their degrees at Everglades tasked students to write a full bidding contract for a solar panel field that would power a sewage treatment plant in a fictitious city. The project involved not only knowing how to apply the technology to a real-world project, but how to price it, let bids and secure the necessary permits.
Students presented the finished project as they would before an actual city government body.
The school plans to take its lab further. At present, it only serves the 160 students who attend the Lakewood Ranch campus. King said the school plans to build similar labs at its Boca Raton and Orlando campuses.
Everglades University will also commit more heavily to energy efficiency as time goes on. The roughly 91 kilowatt hours of electricity produced daily by solar panels at the solar lab comprise very little of the total electricity consumed by the 88,000-square-foot school building. Future school buildings will likely be built to U.S. Green Building Council standards and will incorporate energy generation and efficiency measures such as LED lighting to reduce the school's carbon footprint.
Businesses will benefit
The school has already been recognized by the Florida chapter of the building council, receiving its "Business of the Year" award last year.
Bringing renewable energy education to students going into the construction trades is something the Manatee-Sarasota Builders Industry Association can get behind. The membership organization's executive vice president, Alan Anderson, said solar energy technology has improved so much in the past few decades that builders need industry experts who can develop and sell them the products their customers want.
"I think there is a market in our industry for a new and improved product," Anderson said.
Builders are expecting more stringent energy efficiency standards to be written into the next round of state building code regulations, so having professionals educated on the subject can only help.
For its part, Everglades University is looking to increase demand for renewable energy by promoting its benefits to students and the greater community. The school will open the solar lab to public school classes and community groups. It also promotes its solar energy production web page, eusolarenergy2.com, which tracks in real time what difference the school's solar production is making to offset fossil fuel use.
King said solar lab classes and facilities can be ramped up as demand increases among the school's 1,200 students.
Other schools in Florida have received FPL assistance for solar programs. Richard Gibbs, a spokesman for the utility, said FPL has given solar rebates or outright donations of solar arrays to schools including the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota campus, Florida Gateway University and more than 90 elementary, middle and high schools.
Gibbs said the utility is "very optimistic about the future of solar in Florida." FPL operates three utility-scale solar power generation fields within its 35-county coverage area. At the same time, the company will end its solar rebate program by next year.
Everglades University will hold an open house for its solar lab from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 21.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.