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Turning out wind power graduates

Two year training programs for potential wind farm technicians are popping up at colleges throughout the United States to provide a pool of pre-trained operations and maintenance graduates who know the basics and can be easily fine-tuned in the specifics that companies require. As many as 20 programs are either up and running or are coming soon in states as disparate as Texas, California, Arizona, Wyoming and New York. Worker safety is a key element of all the programs.

Al Zeitz, a wind industry veteran who has moved into teaching, developed an early pioneering program at Iowa Lakes Community College (ILCC) in Estherville in 2004. ILCC's courses currently turn out some 40 wind graduates each year, but Zeitz would like to see that number increase to 100 or more.

"One of the first things we hit on in the program is the safety end of it," he says. "And within the safety realm, climbing that turbine is the most important thing. We just tack things on after that."

Zeitz believes some sort of accreditation system would help the new programs gain credibility. Short of that, however, instructors with real-life experience are proving effective magnates for pulling in students. "I've been bombarded by phone calls and emails wanting that magic touch that they could give to their program to make it successful," Zeitz says, referring to the operators of start-up commercial training courses. "I tell everybody they need to have someone onboard with field experience. In my mind, that's the number one priority."

ILCC uses a pair of donated turbines for training and the school has received money from both the wind industry and the federal government. Zeitz is appreciative but believes the industry and government could do more. ILCC recently completed a facilities expansion and is close to signing an agreement with a university where graduates of its two-year courses could transfer smoothly into an engineering program.

Designing for safety

Zeitz believes such advances will eventually lead to safety taking on an increasing role with regard to turbine design. "That's been a problem in the past," he says. "The engineers do a very good job of designing a streamlined enclosure for the nacelle and all that. But, unfortunately, some parts were put in places where it was extremely difficult to replace them."

A wind program established last year at Columbia Gorge Community College (CGCC) in The Dalles, Oregon, includes a six-month pilot course, a first-year certificate and a two-year degree in renewable energy technology. The school, which currently has three instructors, is recruiting a fourth, adding two new buildings and received financial backing from several companies and the state government. Wind farm owner Iberdrola has granted the school access to a turbine at its nearby Klondike Wind Farm.

The program admits 68 students a year, says Tom Lieurance, lead renewable energy instructor at CGCC. "I'd like to be turning out well over 200 a year," Lieurance says. "But I can't see getting there. We still won't have enough room to do that."

In late June, CGCC hosted a seminar attended by administrators from 17 colleges, including seven with established wind programs, along with representatives of a handful of major developers, operations and maintenance companies and turbine manufacturers. "We called it the summer institute," Lieurance says. "The purpose was to create a first-year curriculum for colleges interested in developing a wind program. Demand is so great that even if we got 20 new colleges involved, it still wouldn't be competition for us."

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