Think of energy as a system that includes sources, transmission, and loads, not just a wind farm, say the planners at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Iowa. “The idea expands on our mission that began 10 years ago when we started training students to take care of the growing numbers of wind turbines around the country,” says Dan Lutat, Wind Energy Director at the college. “Today, we see that energy systems should be the focus of training with specializations in wind turbines, transmission, substation maintenance, energy efficiency, the environment, and more. From the environment around us to the environment in our homes, energy and sustainability form a web of connected resources.”
The college is celebrating its 10th anniversary training wind technicians with a new 50,000 ft2 training center, the Sustainable Energy Resources and Technology (SERT) facility, The expansion increases the training possibilities in the energy field, with the goal of establishing a regional center for sustainability excellence. The new center is mid-way through construction, and an open house is planned for August 28th.
A little history
A decade ago, the college teamed with industry professional to build a solid foundation of education and training for wind turbine technicians. This process prepared graduates for recruitment by operations and maintenance companies and OEMs. As the turbines have changed, so has training, says Lutat, driven by the relationship between AWEA, industry experts, and education experts across the country. For instance, Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems and turbine control schemes have improved dramatically the way turbines operate. Corresponding changes to the curriculum have evolved as well. Now, students are exposed to concepts such as artificial intelligence, a control feature that lets turbines learn from their past performance to make them more efficient under the same circumstances as they occur in the future. Such gains in efficiency, output and reliability will continue to improve the already sound business case for wind energy. Hiring companies have included Vestas, Anemometry Specialists, Siemens, GE, Iberdrola, NextEra and Edison Mission Group to name just a few.
“Feedback from industry has led the school to refocus training so techs are introduced to equipment they can expect in the field,” Lutat says. This fit in nicely with AWEA’s desire to establish training criteria for their Seal of Approval that would identify a student as ready for the industry. Three community colleges – Iowa Lakes, Columbia Gorge, and Texas State Technical Community College – piloted the project and seven programs nationally were recognized with the seal. About 2,500 field experts around the country got together through AWEA to develop the criteria. Regardless of the program length, which ranges from nine months to two years, students from recognized programs are delivered industry-ready, so that companies know they have been trained with a level of realism that sets them apart.
To improve the criteria, Lutat says the college continually asks: What would take energy training to the next level? If people look at energy as a system – whether from wind, coal, nuclear, natural gas, solar, hydroelectric, or geothermal – each source has an impact on the others. “Transmission brings power from different resources to load centers over great distances. So the obvious conclusion is to teach energy as a system, from sources to cities,” adds Lutat. “Our new facility will have a large solar array and geothermal field and is designed to be a working lab. Students see how radian heat, geothermal, solar, and air conditioning all work together for a more energy efficient building. Our Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) program, started this year, is an example of our journey into the energy efficiency side of things. When you couple that with the college’s Construction Technology, you begin to see how we make the bridge between energy production and energy efficiency.”
In the process, the energy program teamed up with Environmental Studies and Water Quality and Aquatic Technologies, since energy and the environment are intrinsically linked. With energy and access to clean water our top human challenges, “Bringing the energy and environmental technologies together under one roof lets students see intuitive connections. For instance, technology that makes turbines more efficient can be used to make homes more energy efficient as well,” he says.
The college continues to take a broad-spectrum approach to its courses so students that graduate can find the niche that suits them best.
Engineering, manufacturing, meteorology, construction and commissioning, all the way to operations and maintenance are just some of the areas graduates go into. “Some even find work in the policy and siting arena, working with everyone from land owners to lawyers. Since our techs know the industry well and have a solid foundation in what goes into siting the wind parks,” says Lutat, “they offer insight that proves valuable in the planning stages.”
The next level
A next level suggests a pathway for traditional and non-traditional students, those changing careers. Word of the quality of the training provided at Iowa Lakes’ wind program has reached across industry disciplines. “For that,” says Lutat, “we have developed a core that provides foundational electron theory, power generation, motors, controls, and SCADA systems. This core is shared by our new Engineering Technology, Industrial Electric, HVAC, Water Quality and Aquatic Technology, and Wind Energy programs. Having students from different disciplines learning side-by-side shows them how they impact one another. Suppose a technician would like to advance more rapidly to a lead technician’s role. That person could take advanced PLC work to learn higher order process controls, or advanced SCADA systems. These competencies show potential employers that this person is ready to take on more responsibility, because their training is more advanced.”
In addition, the college has developed a partnership with a German company called Windtest, who now has an office at Iowa Lakes Community College. The company conducts operational testing of turbines. “Windtest will have turbines in our area beginning in 2015. As they grow their staff, our graduates fit their needs nicely. As we identify students with a goal of becoming engineers, Wind Test can then groom them into the type of hands-on engineers they need,” Lutat says. He also noted that the benefit to Iowa Lakes is that they can give students a glimpse of what’s ahead in the industry and help us to refine our curriculum further. Windtest’s outreach activities will also boost our STEM activities with area schools in support of the State’s emphasis on improving technological education.”
Lutat has an offer for OEMs as well. “Suppose Vestas would like their employees to have advanced PLC or SCADA training. They can come here for it. NextEra was here for our advisory meeting and expressed a desire to work closely with us to refine our curriculum and their training plans. A partnership with them is in the works to help identify specific needs for graduates entering the field. From an efficiency standpoint, this means a company could send employees here for up-skill work, rather than sending them longer distances at greater expense of time and money.”
Lutat says all the tracks mentioned can be completed in two years. “Over the last three years, we have eliminated redundancies and created opportunities in the second year for more advanced elective training,” he says. If a student sees they can be more employable with an extra semester, they now have an option tailored for them. There is also a one-year Diploma track for those with a technical background already who want an upgrade to their skillset and then to return to industry faster.
What about qualified instructors? “We have six full-time faculty focused on improving technology training, from automation to distribution. For example, our resident master electrician, Doug Zemler, is qualified for substation maintenance and will use our training substation to prepare technicians with,” says Lutat. “While students will not be exposed to high voltages, realistic training will put them through what they need to know to safely work in a substation.” All these developments, says Lutat, will make the college a center of training excellence in the region. “We have created pathways to meet industry needs now, and research shows that we have significant groups aging out of the industries for which we are training people. So the job prospects are there for the foreseeable future as we create a sustainable workforce.”
As a closing thought, Lutat suggests that if you are a high school student and not looking at energy or environmental careers, give it serious consideration. For young ladies looking to have an impact on America’s energy future, the field needs your talent and the opportunities in gender non-traditional fields abound. “This is where the money is being made – by people willing to use their hands and their brains to move America forward.”
Filed Under: News, Training