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Opportunities for Minority Students in the Solar Industry

November 20, 2012 - 9:00am

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The Long Island Solar Farm (LISF) -- currently the largest solar photovoltaic power plant in the Eastern United States -- generates enough renewable energy to power approximately 4,500 homes. LISF is located at Brookhaven National Laboratory. | Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The Long Island Solar Farm (LISF) -- currently the largest solar photovoltaic power plant in the Eastern United States -- generates enough renewable energy to power approximately 4,500 homes. LISF is located at Brookhaven National Laboratory. | Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Solar industry jobs are increasing along with the rapidly expanding solar industry. As reported this month by the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census, jobs in the industry are increasing by 13.2 percent annually, six times faster than the overall job market. This equates about 1 of every 230 new jobs in the US economy was created by the solar industry this past year.

As the nation’s demographics are shifting and now most children under the age of one are minorities, it is critical that we close the gap in the number of minorities who seek solar career opportunities. Women and minorities make up 70 percent of college students, but only 45 percent of undergraduate STEM degree holders. This large pool of untapped talent is a great potential source of STEM professionals.

The Energy Department’s Minority University Research Associates (MURA) Program seeks to address the gap by encouraging minority students to pursue careers in science and technology. Funded by the Department’s Solar Energy Technologies Program, MURA supports research associates and professors/principal investigators from selected schools as they perform renewable energy research projects during the academic year. These projects contribute to the development of cost-competitive, market-applicable technologies and help to achieve Energy Department goals.

The last round of awards, for projects in 2010-2013, funded six schools across the country for undergraduate internships, graduate student internships at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and funding for Howard University’s Center for Energy Systems and Control.

Jesus Ortega, a University of Texas – El Paso student, is supported with his research by a MURA award to his advisor, Vinod Kumar, for his work on thermal energy storage systems.  MURA gave Ortega his first internship with the Energy Department and allowed him to see what the world of renewable energy has to offer. “At first I was a bit skeptical about the potential of these technologies,” Ortega said, “but now I am one of the lead student researchers in my school working with solar energy.” Ortega is thankful for MURA at his small university, as it offers him the same opportunities to grow in research fields and connect with people from bigger universities.

This program contributes to the development of a diverse and competent workforce ready to support the nation's growing clean-energy industry. By providing research opportunities for minority students, the MURA Program encourages members of the African American, Hispanic, Asian American Pacific Islanders, Native American, Alaska Native, and Hawaiian Native communities to peruse careers in science and technology.

In addition, the innovative research projects funded by the MURA Program have furthered the Energy Department’s goal of making solar energy cost-competitive with conventional sources of electricity.

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