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Arkansas university to begin first solar education program in the state

2021-12-24-Solar_lab-4197.jpg
Michael Hibblen
/
KUAR News
The solar lab for the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana's new program was under construction at the Hope campus on Dec. 24.

As solar power becomes more widespread, the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana (UAHT) will begin classes next week to train students on how to design, install and operate solar electric systems. It is also building the first solar education lab in the state on the Hope campus.

Yellow caution tape surrounds large wooden slats that will eventually have solar panels installed and be part of a one megawatt array. In addition to providing first-hand training for students, Chancellor Christine Holt says it will also provide power for the campus.

The solar education certification is an expansion of the Power Plant Technology program that began in 2009 in partnership with Southwestern Electric Power Company to train students to work in its nearby coal-fired Turk Power Plant. This is “the next evolution,” Holt says, as the university works to prepare students for careers in renewable energy.

“As we know, solar is the way of the future. We’re hearing more and more about solar every day,” she said. “This gives us a great opportunity to be at the forefront of this movement.”

The Certificate of Proficiency in Solar Energy Technology is a nine-credit-hour program with instructional material adopted from Solar Energy International, which the university says is the global leader in providing classroom curriculum and lab training.

Traditional utility companies have expanded into solar power in recent years. Entergy Arkansas says it is now the largest provider of solar power in Arkansas. The company built an 81-megawatt facility on nearly 500 acres in Stuttgart, which began operating in 2017. Since then it has added solar arrays in Lake Village, near Searcy and expects to have one in operation by the end of the year near Brinkley.

Several cities, counties and electric co-ops in the state have also begun using solar power. In 2020, Clarksville became the first city in Arkansas to power all of its governmental operations with solar energy. Last June, North Little Rock held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a $1.4 million array that will power the city’s wastewater utility. In April, the National Audubon Society became the first nonprofit in the state to have its office building in Little Rock powered entirely by solar energy.

Holt said it’s a clear trend that the university is responding to.

“We’re trying to get out ahead of this so that we will have a very competitive workforce, so we will have workers that are ready to go to work to install, to operate and to maintain solar panels,” Holt said.

Classes in the program are set to begin next Tuesday and will be taught by an instructor who Holt says was brought in specifically for this program. Up to 18 students can enroll during the spring semester.

Holt, who started as UAHT Chancellor in September, credits the work of Vice Chancellor for Academics Laura Clark for establishing the solar energy degree program. There are no other such programs offered at Arkansas colleges and universities, she said, with the nearest being at the University of Texas in Austin.

“We can see that this is going to grow over the next five, ten years and we’re at the cusp, we’re at the forefront,” Holt said.

She also anticipates that with the lab providing power to the campus, the university will see “a great savings because of this program.”