Can colleges help students navigate the solar power grid?

Can colleges help students navigate the solar power grid?

Can colleges help students navigate the solar power grid?

The US Department of Energy has long been touting its sweeping proposals for low-carbon, clean-energy technologies that could solve many of our nation’s deep-rooted problems, from job creation to climate change.

But despite all this innovation – and despite America’s ability to wield its political and economic power to sway where those advances come from – the United States has been unable to pursue its boldest clean-energy and climate-related programs with any success.

Why? Simple economics. While the work of renewable energy experts, clean energy advocates, and green energy boosters is of tremendous benefit to every sector of society, the cost of building these innovations into the renewable-energy mix is prohibitively high.

Stumbling blocks

Over the years, the price of wind and solar energy has come down, but on a cost per-kwh basis it’s still far higher than the high-cost alternatives, such as natural gas. Meanwhile, investments that could eventually transform renewable energy from the expensive-to-develop or intermittently-available alternative to the cheap, highly regulated and ubiquitous power source it is today have been ineffective due to policy obstacles and financial economics.

Take the Solar Electric Generating System Investment Tax Credit (S. 362), a generous, 20-year benefit for homeowners and commercial and industrial property owners that has allowed rooftop solar installations to grow rapidly. But with the solar industry struggling to survive amid plunging prices of fossil fuels and nagging government fiscal shortfalls, the credit’s 12.5 percent annual growth rate suggests that all isn’t lost for the future of the Solar Tax Credit.

Despite public efforts, meanwhile, Congress’ unwillingness to provide funding or pass policies that could benefit the green-energy industry continues to shape innovation. It’s far too difficult to do business and find energy experts to visit students with a sincere hope that the students will grow to become involved in the study of clean-energy technologies. And many Americans’ conception of what renewable energy can and should be – as a fad to be pursued largely by wealthy elites – strongly correlates with the current liberal progressive tilt in the political agenda.

So what’s the solution? For many students, there’s no silver bullet. But research shows that exposure to important scientists, though a long-term investment, can dramatically boost students’ aspirations to pursue careers in the green-energy sector.

The research

As in the great educational and research-funding debates of the last few decades, debate over America’s higher-education investments is hardly new. In fact, this debate has raged for well over a century.

It’s important to note, however, that it’s not just the existing higher-education systems that are failing to develop the requisite talent for and experiences around the field of clean energy.

Previous research by the then-IRI-Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Valeria Ligotti found that early education in states that focus on providing parental and community supports for children from low-income families often produces larger gains on student achievement compared to states that impose higher academic standards, rather than better support for students from these low-income families.

Ligotti also discovered that mid-range-income families, especially in many states, are being neglected in the wake of an overwhelming focus on research and development across education and energy at the early and middle stages of educational success.

Indeed, more than one-third of the student body at major American colleges and universities today is socioeconomically disadvantaged. In larger metropolitan areas and the communities they live in, high school graduation rates are among the lowest in the country. And they are more than twice as likely to drop out of college.

This overwhelming, federally mandated focus on the importance of research and development in many fields – but not in this one – gives colleges and universities an unsustainable, unfunded mandate to produce graduates.

In fact, on average, $40,000 annually annually – or roughly six-to-seven times the median family income – is spent on education and college costs for each college freshman on average.

Ligotti concludes that no college graduate could possibly be prepared for these enormous challenges if colleges and universities are not given the resources and support to address the educational and career gaps facing students of limited means.

But can colleges and universities contribute to this national challenge by playing a larger role in helping students enter the clean-energy arena? More specifically, how can colleges provide student fellowships and internships to help them make connections with clean-energy researchers to improve their skills?

Ligotti believes that colleges can. A recently convened group of well-respected researchers and educators is considering just that. For example, an annual $10 million grant from the Jim and Debra Squire Charitable Trust will finance the

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