The Appalachian Regional Commission awarded a $55,000 grant to Lanier Technical College to develop a two-year associate degree in solar technology installation and repair. The college will match the grant with $110,000 over the next two years as the school draws on its existing programs to develop the new solar technology curriculum.
Linda Barrow, vice president of academic affairs at Lanier Tech, said the program will turn out students who understand solar energy technology and are able to install and maintain the technology.
Barrow said the program will be under way in two years, which isn’t soon enough for solar energy companies that are seeing an increased demand for their services now.
With the nation’s focus on alternative energy, Barrow said several potential students and solar energy companies have contacted the campus in support of the program. Students of the program likely will have jobs waiting on them pending graduation, she said.
"It’s amazing," she said. "We’re two years away from starting this program ... and we already have a lot of interest in it."Barrow said Lanier Tech’s solar energy program will be the first institution in the state to offer a two-year degree in solar energy technology maintenance. She said the college’s degree will require students to engage in internships where they will work on solar technology that can power "just about anything you can use energy and electricity for."
She said she initiated the grant process for the program after learning of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s goal to establish affordable, reliable and environmentally responsible energy sources in Georgia.
Ben Browning, co-owner of Georgia Solar Power Co. in Marietta, said without many skilled solar technology laborers in Georgia, his company has hired mostly construction workers to perform the necessary labor for installing solar energy technology.
The drawback in employing unskilled laborers, Browning said, is that he also must hire master electricians to wire the systems and he must be present himself to get the system started.
He said with graduates from Lanier Tech’s solar energy program, he would feel comfortable leaving them to execute the whole installation process.
Browning said he hopes to hire some graduates of the Lanier Tech program because he expects demand for his company’s services to soar in the next year.
In times when his company has multiple jobs in the works, Browning said skilled solar energy technicians will be an invaluable asset to his business.
"Come 2009, we’re not going to be able to turn around," he said. "My partner in (Texas) said they’re having to turn students away from the program at Austin Community College like the one they’re trying to start at Lanier Tech because so many students are interested."
He said new tax credits from the state and federal government may spur more demand for solar energy.
He said it costs about $22,000 to install a 3.1 kilowatt an hour system in the average home.
With federal and state tax credits, customers would pay only about $10,000 for the system that could save them up to half on their energy bill each month, depending on the residents’ energy consumption.
He said the bailout package Congress approved this month removed the $2,000 federal cap on solar energy tax credits, allowing solar energy users to receive 30 percent off their installation costs.
Browning said in some parts of the United States, particularly on the West Coast, solar energy can provide up to 100 percent of the energy needed to operate a home or business.
Browning said in Georgia, there are currently caps on the amount of solar energy homeowners can generate for their own use.
Barrow said the solar companies might not have to wait a full four years for the program to get going and for students to graduate.
Students also can earn a certificate in solar technology in as little as six months or a diploma in the field in as little as one year.