When a professor is giving a lecture in H.L. Griffin Hall, or a student is in the middle of a workout at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Recreation Center, or head football coach Michael Desormeaux is leading the Ragin’ Cajuns onto Cajun Field, they are doing so in facilities that are powered by renewable energy.

The developments made at the newly-built Louisiana Solar Energy Lab provide training for the next generation of renewable energy professionals, testing opportunities for international technology and energy sources for campus life.

The lab building was donated by Georges and Martha Antoun in 2022. Georges Antoun is the chief commercial officer (CCO) of First Solar Inc.

The solar energy lab is located at UL Lafayette’s University Research Park on Eraste Landry Road near Cajundome Boulevard. The lab consists of over 4,200 solar panels across a 6-acre testing field along with technology used for tracking, concentrating and simulating solar energy.

The director of the Energy Efficiency & Sustainable Energy Center, Dr. Terrence Chambers, who oversees the majority of the solar energy lab, aims to develop a workforce that can further innovate renewable energy technology.

“A lot of what I’ve been doing is creating workforce training programs and working with other entities around the state to make it so that Louisiana will have the ability to supply this trained workforce to support all of these efforts we’ve been talking about,” Chambers said.

Chambers will soon be relocating many engineering courses, including solar specific courses, to the solar energy lab once the building is fully completed. This will allow engineering students at UL Lafayette to receive hands-on experience with solar energy technology.

Chambers described the development of solar technology in Louisiana as an “if you build it, they will come” issue.

If UL Lafayette is able to continue attracting companies to implement their technology in Louisiana, Chambers and the rest of the engineering department want to ensure those companies the university can supply the next generation of professionals to further improve their developments.

The facility was built thanks to a $4 million contribution from Louisiana Generating LLC, a subsidiary of NRG Energy at the time of the contribution in 2016. Students and student athletes on UL Lafayette’s campus are already reaping the benefits of the Louisiana Solar Energy Lab without even realizing it.

“Most of the buildings along this part of campus, you know, the Cajundome, the football field, Blackham Coliseum, Bourgeois Hall, those are all being powered by this solar farm, along with the northern part of campus,” Chambers said.

In total, the solar panels in the farm can generate an output of 1.1 megawatts, according to Chambers.

“I’ll give you a real easy metric to compare it to,” Chambers said. “The demand for the city of Lafayette, the whole city, is about 500 megawatts.”

Chambers stated that a typical day in Lafayette requires approximately 500 megawatts during peak electricity demand.

With Chambers’ solar farm and many more solar farms popping up around the state, such as Entergy’s recently-approved four solar projects expected to produce 475 megawatts of power, Louisiana is well on its way to becoming a more solar state.

Bifacial photovoltaic test stands are among the other technologies being tested at the solar lab. Photovoltaic cells, or PV cells, are basically used to convert solar energy into the energy we use every day in our homes. Chambers said these test stands are fixed above varying colors of gravel to test how well the panels pick up the sun reflecting off the ground.

Chambers’ solar lab is also testing solar tracking technology from India that tracks the movement of the sun on a 2D and 3D scale rather than a stationary panel.

The solar lab is also testing a concentrating PV dish, a development from Switzerland. 

“It’s like having 20 different suns all redirecting to the center column of this dish,” Chambers said.

This technology is used to concentrate multiple solar rays from the sun into PV cells in the middle of the dish.

“The industry continues to innovate and get better and lower cost and improve performance, but overall, solar is quite mature,” Chambers said. “The cost of both solar and wind has dropped about 90% in the last 10 years.”

Chambers said solar and wind have become the “cheapest form of electrical generation,” not only in the United States, but also in other parts of the world.

“In terms of the whole ballgame, I think we’re maybe in about the third inning,” Chambers said.