The sun was shining Monday afternoon, shedding light on a new subject growing in popularity for college students.
Along the wide-open space near Madison Area Technical College in Fort Atkinson, there is the start of a new energy source that will be able to supply the college with all the power it needs.
But more important, students will get to learn about one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation by studying the engineering and installation of solar power.
“In the last decade, solar has really exploded,” said Ken Walz, a science and engineer instructor for MATC.
The school has had a renewable energy program for the last 15 years that originally focused on biofuels.
On the Fort Atkinson campus, MATC also had a wind turbine for about a decade that was dissembled last year after a gear box broke.
Walz said educators used the turbine to teach students about wind technology. But the cost to fix the problem was high, so the turbine was sold to someone in Michigan who will put that equipment into operation there.
“We were looking at some necessary repairs, and enrollment in wind (energy) classes had gone down over the last several years,” Walz said.
Biofuels also is maxed out in this state, he said, with not much opportunity for job growth.
But solar power is booming and for good reason. Not only is there abundant sunshine for a place like MATC to operate a facility, but the technology to build solar panels is relatively inexpensive.
In fact, Walz said installing a solar energy system is 90% cheaper than in 2003 when MATC first installed one.
Back then, the price was about $18 per watt. Now, it’s about $1.70 per watt. The MATC-Fort Atkinson project will have a 150,000-watt system.
The growth in the school’s program for wind and solar power is starting to reflect a major shift in the energy industry, Walz stated.
“We can generate a lot more energy from solar at a lower cost and have a lot more students,” he said.
The renewable energy program at the college focuses on engineering, design and modeling, and the construction aspect of the industry.
Students learn not only how to install the grids but also how to connect it safely.
“There’s so many things to be excited about if you find yourself lucky enough to work in the industry,” said Stanely Minnick, a Madison College alumnus who now is the project manager for Arch Electric that is doing the solar installation at Fort Atkinson.
When he started at the college as a student 11 years ago, Walz said, the program was less developed than now, but it has come a long way to helping students learn the industry. Arch Electric now employs about 95 people.
“Before that I was delivering pizzas,” Minnick said of the program. “Renewable energy made a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. It provides a good job and gives a sense of accomplishment and purpose.”
After working in the industry for a decade, Walz sees how the MATC program has developed to fit the needs of today’s marketplace.
MATC as a whole has begun installing new solar systems at many of its campuses. Last year, the college installed a large system at the main Truax campus in Madison and also has one at its new MATC South location.
From the list of projects he has seen throughout other areas of the state including technical colleges in Green Bay and Milwaukee, Walz said, there are plenty of solar projects coming to the state. The technical college program is part of a Department of Energy grant that also helps fund student instruction and internships.
The project at the Fort Atkinson campus began a few months ago when the bases for the new solar installation were set up, Walz said, noting that the panels should be added in late October. The project, he said, will take about three weeks to complete.
This basically will offset all the building’s energy consumption, he noted.
The school also received a few grants to help defray the cost of the project that will be roughly $250,000.
Walz said the savings over the next few years will result in about a 9% return on investment.
“For schools, investing in solar energy is pretty incredible and a pretty good investment for the taxpayer,” he said.
Moving to solar now, Walz said, is riding the wave of the future. Coal plants across the state that were built 50 to 75 years ago now are reaching the end of their lifespans. And coal, he said, is a product that has to be shipped to Wisconsin.
“I can guarantee we won’t be doing what we did 50 or 75 years ago,” he said. “They will not be building coal plants. This is just the tip of an iceberg—a trend that is just starting right now.”
Walz said MATC also is looking at the Watertown campus to see if a solar power system can be installed there.
Solar power, he said, also will help create jobs in Wisconsin. And this is a once-in-a-generation change for energy structure.
“We got plenty of wind and plenty of sunshine,” Walz said. “We need to make use of resources we have, and keep that money in our local state economy and put people to work with some good paying jobs.”