The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday January 15th

NC State to build solar energy testing lab

With oil prices rising and the Obama administration pushing alternative energy, there is a greater demand for solar energy products.

A new laboratory at N.C. State University will soon be able to test those products before they go on the market.

Only five such labs exist in the United States, and the backlog for testing solar thermal energy systems can be more than two years. But the lab at NCSU’s Solar Center and another being built at the University of New Haven could boost the country’s market for green systems.

Thermal energy collectors gather heat from the sun and use it to warm water in people’s homes.

With few labs to test the products, the costs of waiting are high.

The facility at NCSU should be operational by the end of June and certified — as solar testing labs must be — by the beginning of 2012, while the University of New Haven’s won’t be operational until 2012, said Tommy Cleveland, manager for the University of New Haven lab.

Students are designing the equipment for the lab and will be running the tests once it opens, he said.

NCSU also designed its own equipment, partly to save money, said Michael Ross, the lab’s manager. The university received a $95,000 grant from the N.C. Green Business Fund for the lab.

The lab in New Haven received a federal grant for $500,000 on top of $100,000 from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund.

The other labs in the country, located in Arizona, Texas, California and Florida, are privately owned.

“It’s a lot of trouble to break into it,” Ross said. “It doesn’t make any money when you’re setting it up.”

But he said products will come from all over the world for testing.

“There wasn’t much demand for it in the ’80s and ’90s, but there’s an increased demand for solar thermal collectors,” he said.

The systems are expensive, but with tax rebates and lower energy bills, the costs should balance out, he said. What the ratings and certifications do is inform the customer which systems are most effective, further reducing electricity usage.

Ross said the biggest hindrance to the solar energy market is the hidden cost of traditional energy sources. They are cheaper up front, but the environmental and long-term costs are higher.

Solar energy business is a small enterprise in the state, said Kim McCarl, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Commerce. The industry is too small for the department to even have figures on the jobs created by that sector.

But the industry should grow in the future with the Obama administration’s support and the rising cost of carbon fuel sources, Cleveland said.

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