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News & Events | Strata Solar, Chapel Hill, NC

Orange County pines for its days in the sun.

June 27, 2009 from Triangle Business Journal

Hillsborough ,NC

Orange County's future just might revolve around the sun. The county is working on multiple fronts to bring solar technology companies to the area, create new jobs and launch a solar installation training program projected to start this fall at Durham Technical Community College.

Brad Broadwell, director of the Orange County Economic Development Commission, says that with interest in renewable energy surging and federal stimulus dollars available for renewable energy companies and projects, the time is right for the county to position itself as a “solar cluster.”

“All the signs told us there was a viable opportunity to build a cluster of business in this area,” he says.

Broadwell already can point to some successes. Strata Solar / Solar Tech South, which sells residential and commercial photovoltaic and solar water heating systems from German company Schuco, opened in Chapel Hill this winter. And Hillsborough company Solar Revolutions is considering opening a facility in the county to make its photovoltaic roof shingles.

Solar Revolutions owner Karim Saleh­mohammed says he's contracting with a Swiss company to make the shingles because he could not find a U.S. company to make them. He says he wants to open an Orange County facility within six months, though he's yet to pick a location.

Ultimately, Broadwell would like to see his solar cluster take a physical form. To that end, he's talking with the developers who proposed the Buckhorn Village retail development near Mebane. With the retail plans on the shelf, Broadwell says, a solar park could be a way to develop the land and stimulate the county's economy. The site still needs county approval for new utilities.

Broadwell has been talking with county commissioners about setting aside funds in the fiscal 2010 budget for incentives to attract solar companies. “Their success will build our cluster,” he says. “Our success will build their companies.”

Before breaking ground, companies want to know about worker training, Broadwell says. Durham Tech is developing a curriculum for solar installers. Greg Mimmack, program director for electronics engineering technology, says the college plans a one-year diploma program that will lead to certification in photovoltaic installation.

The college also is developing a shorter certification program for those who already have a background in electrical work. The college is partnering with companies that are offering equipment and instructors for the program. The college is also applying for a $250,000 grant from Duke Energy.

The number of jobs that await the students depends largely on the solar companies, Broadwell says. Solar Tech South President Markus Wilhelm says his company will need installers, but the number hired will depend on the amount of business that comes his way.

Wilhelm says he's keeping watch on how federal stimulus dollars will be spent. If schools and local governments can tap the money to retrofit facilities with renewable energy technologies, Strata Solar / Solar Tech South could capture a share of that business, he says.

“The economic development group was looking for new businesses, new industries,” Mr. Wilhelm says. “Our timing is good. People are ready for (solar technology).