Legislators should fund innovative UNCC facility

The soaring oil price that produced $4-a-gallon gas may have taken millions of North Carolinians by surprise, but planners at UNC Charlotte have been studying ways to improve energy efficiency and reduce dependence on traditional sources for a long time. That's one reason, among many, that they've been planning for a cutting-edge Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) for years.

The General Assembly likes the idea, too. It provided $19 million last year for planning and site development. Now the university needs to secure another $57 million for construction – and there's no better time than the supplemental budget now before the legislators.

The House budget did not include the funding, but there's good reason for the Senate to do so.

Why? Because the planned facility would be instrumental in providing research and expertise to develop alternative energy sources in North Carolina as well as elsewhere. As UNCC Chancellor Philip Dubois pointed out on these pages Friday, demand for energy is about to jump by nearly one-third. Major energy companies are looking to UNCC “to help address a critical shortage in the intellectual capital necessary to modernize energy production operations and develop alternative energy sources.”

The EPIC facility would help train engineers to service aging fossil and nuclear plants and develop alternatives such as solar, wind and biofuel facilities. These engineers are needed because of the aging of the current workforce and the projected demand for more students in energy related fields, Chancellor Dubois wrote.

The General Assembly has traditionally been generous to campuses in the University of North Carolina system. It has done much to enable and enhance the engineering programs at UNCC, too, although the university can make a compelling argument that current funding formulas have worked to the distinct disadvantage of the Charlotte campus. When university cuts are made, they seem to slice deep into educational tissue at UNCC.

That's one more reason the EPIC facility and adequate funding for construction is so important – locally and statewide, too. The Energy Production and Infrastructure Center is all about new energy development and the production of trained engineers and other workers to develop, perfect and operate successful new power systems. It's not just vital for the university campus here. It's vital for the state and for this country. The General Assembly should take note and make sure the EPIC facility gets under way without delay.