Change is in the wind for rural America – thanks to rapid growth of wind power. High oil prices, coupled with federal tax incentives, are making the technology more attractive to investors and utilities alike.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, 3,200 turbines were installed across the nation last year pushing the total number of towers to more than 25,000.
The structures vary in size and energy output, but a general rule is that a two-person operation and maintenance team is required for every 10 turbines.
With record expansion looming on the horizon, Community Colleges are turning out graduates to help locate, build, and service the giant wind-powered generators. David Miller visited one of the schools last winter and filed this report.
Dylan Braam of Joliet, Illinois, is working on a computer program that simulates how to properly site the tower for a wind turbine. Braam, now a graduate the Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Iowa intially had some reservations.
Dylan Braam, Joliet, Illinois: "...it was a little strange coming out to a small town in Iowa but the people are friendly and the program, as far as I can tell, is just top notch and ah the instructors are great. Yah know I came here without knowing anything about electricity, or not a lot about anything, but mechanical systems and what not. So, they've done a great job bring, bringing me along."
Since 2004, Iowa Lakes Community College has been one of several schools across the country turning out its share of qualified graduates for the wind energy workforce. When the program was started four years ago on the Estherville campus, there were 15 students in a few classrooms. Late last year, a new building was dedicated and now 4 instructors are teaching 66 students the essentials of locating, constructing, and maintaining wind turbines. And in the near future a building expansion is planned that will bring many of the training mock-ups inside so they can be used in inclement weather.
Mike Schmidt is a former instructor with the Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program at Iowa Lakes.
Mike Schmidt, Iowa Lakes Community College: "I tell the students early on that this, you really need to make a commitment to be successful in this program or any other technical program. If you do make that commitment it's going to pay off in the long run.
American Wind Energy Association, or AWEA, a wind industry promotion group, wind generating capacity in the United States jumped 45 percent to 17,000 megawatts or a little more than 1 percent of the electrical power supply in 2007. The AWEA attributes much of the incentive for that growth to the federal Wind Energy Tax Credit. This tax credit is due to expire at the end of this year unless Congress chooses to extend it. If Congress does choose to extend the tax credit, the AWEA estimates capacity may increase by another 30 percent in 2008. To handle the increase, American Wind estimates the pool of qualified people for all phases of the industry will need to grow from 45,000 to 75,000.
Two students that will likely help fill this gap are Nadine Kelly-Straitt and her husband Roger Straitt. Both first year students, Kelly-Strait, 35, and Straitt, 50 like the fact the program caters to all age groups.
Nadine Kelly-Straitt, Titonka, Iowa: "I've always taken care of kids, nutrition, family, that's what I've done for a long time. But, as far as mechanics and electricity, hyrdraulics and all that, that's new for me. It's a new, it's challenging for me because it's not an area I'm comfortable, familiar, and I'm just adding to my knowledge. I'm excited about it because it's a renewable energy. It's something I believe in and I think it's important."
Straitt, who retired after almost 30 years in the United States Air Force, had been doing work on farms in rural Iowa until his wife encouraged him to join the program.
Roger Straitt, Titonka, Iowa: "She said, let's do this. I was so wishy-washy about doing it at first was ya know I'm going to be 50 years old and I'm going to be in class with a bunch of guys that are 19, 20, maybe up to 25, ya know, and I'm going to be an outcast, you feel like, but when I got here, when I found out that this, the other guys in the class they don't care."
Straitt did find that his life experience had both positive and negative effects on his classroom experience.
Roger Straitt, Titonka, Iowa: "Sometimes this material we're learning is, is stuff I've already done on the job. So, you've learned it on the job, you don't have college credit for it or anything, but you've learned it on the job. So, sometimes y- it's, you could have a tendency to ask questions that are above where you're at in the class because your mind is working, jumping ahead and so you have to be careful not to do that. So that's one thing. The other thing is, is the terminology. When you're working in this industry you may be using the same parts but they're called something else. They're just referred to how you hook them together is a called a different process."
Part of the curriculum includes a mandatory internship during the summer between the first and second years of the program. Braam's internship was in Northern Ireland.
Because of the combination of classroom and internship requirements in the two-year course of study, most students are employed immediately after graduation. According to Schmidt, base-pay for alumni averages around $25 dollars per hour or roughly $50,000 per year when overtime work is factored-in.
Mike Schmidt, Iowa Lakes Community College: "...many of our students get two to three offers upon successfully completing the program. You know it's, it's one of those things that ah it, its caught kind of all of us off guard. We had, we really did not know what, what the possibilities were for these students and we found that ah, ya know starting wages being very, very lucrative."
Seeing value in the program, major producers of wind turbines have invested in Iowa Lakes program. Leading manufacturers like the Danish company Vestas and Netherlands-based Suzlon have provided guidance, equipment, and internships.
And Braam sees value in the Iowa Lakes program as well. During his internship in Ireland, he was offered a few weeks extra of work but turned it down. In some cases, extensions of this kind can lead to full-time jobs without all of the required classes but Braam believed finishing the program was a better choice.
Dylan Braam, Joliet, Illinois: "They did offer us a small extension for extra help for a couple of weeks and other interns were offered full-time positions at the end of theirs. I personally didn't take the small extension because school was beginning and I already paid for classes. So, I wanted to get back but it was, it was kind of tempting to see if they would hire me right on. I was already over there. I was having a blast ya know it was great work, but ... if you do...the two full years you get a lot better possibilities. I didn't want to cut short of my education."
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.