Solar Panel Training at the Perry Construction Institute

Solar Panel Training at the Perry Construction Institute

By night it is a seemingly ordinary trailer, but by day, the vehicle parked behind the Charles R. Perry Construction Institute transforms into a mobile training unit for solar power. Santa Fe College recently hosted representatives from the Solar Source Institute, who taught a solar energy workshop Nov. 15-19 using functional solar panels, a solar water heater, and the mobile training unit that is powered entirely by solar energy.

“After the first few years, President Obama is putting more money out there for solar energy, and that’ll give those of us in the industry a shot in the arm,” said Ed Nelson, lead instructor for Solar Source. “Here alone, the cost for solar is dropping rapidly, so, in the next 10 years, this is going to explode. Santa Fe’s on first base, and they are really going to hit a home run in the next few years with their solar program.”

Sixteen students, including 13 from the community development program YouthBuild, attended the five-day solar workshop. Organized by Apprenticeship Coordinator Justin MacDougall, the program was divided into three days of classroom lecture and two days of practical experience.

 “The workshop gives us students ideas of what we want to do when we graduate from YouthBuild,” said Chris Wallace, 22, who is participating in the 6-month Youthbuild program at Santa Fe while pursuing his GED. “It was tough in the first three days, when we had to read modules about solar panels, but it was worth it.”

On the last day of the workshop, students were able to work almost entirely independently, under the supervision of Nelson and Santa Fe faculty. Some were engaged in constructing a frame on which to place 10 large solar panels that together would produce 1200 watts of power and 410 volts of direct current (DC) electrical charge, while other students were busily sketching solar panel installation designs on mock blueprints.

Meanwhile, the mobile training unit offered students a chance to fix solar system problems created in teaching scenarios. The unit, which fielded solar energy from panels on its roof, housed a solar-powered water heater and inverters that created between 120 and 240 DC volts, enough to power the vehicle’s lights and more.

“The mobile unit is self-sufficient, so I could live here and watch TV all day long,” said Nelson. “It doesn’t need outside electricity at all.”

Participants in the workshop received a certificate of completion for an introductory class on solar energy, which represented the 40 hours they spent learning about photovoltaic energy. According to Jane Parkin, Santa Fe College’s director of construction and technical programs, these hours of practical experience are spent constructing more than just solar installations: they create the cornerstone of a great résumé.

“Retention of knowledge is better with hands-on experience. If you actually do and build it, you never forget it,” said Parkin. “We have a great hands-on curriculum, and our graduates often tell me they believe our curriculum has been fundamental for their careers.”

Under the direction of Parkin and other faculty in the construction and technical programs, Santa Fe College is leading the solar revolution here in Gainesville. Equipped with a 25,000 kilowatt solar energy system, the Perry Construction Institute was the college’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building, and the Institute has already invested in two fully functioning models, a solar-voltaic trainer and a solar thermal trainer, for permanent use at the college.

“Using this type of energy is a good way to reduce our carbon footprint and explore alternative energy sources,” said Parkin. “By going to solar, thermal, wind, and hydro power, we’ll help keep the greenhouse effect down.”

For more information about Santa Fe’s training offerings in this exciting new field, contact Jane Parkin at 352-395-5363 or email to

~ Press release and photos by Allison Griner, Communication Specialst, College Relations