As renewable industries grow, education follows

Trevor Smith

It soars 145 feet over Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Texas Township campus. Its rotating blades illustrate the otherwise invisible breeze. The captivating giant silently spins outside the campus doors.

A wind turbine is like a fan, only in reverse. Instead of using energy to propel its blades and produce wind, it uses wind to propel the blades and produce energy.

Renewable energy sources like wind can reduce carbon emissions, water consumption, noise and thermal pollution caused from traditional power plants. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 7.3 percent of U.S. energy consumption came from renewable energy sources in 2008. That number is expected to grow and create new jobs in the process.

KVCC erected its wind turbine last January along with one of the school’s newest curriculum additions, KVCC’s Wind Turbine Technician Academy. The Academy focuses on the training and manufacturing of these energy giants.

“I think [renewable energy is] really important, given the fact the economy is the way it is,” said Elizabeth Maestas, a freshman taking the wind turbine certificate course at KVCC.

KVCC isn’t the only school developing curriculum to support the growing industry.

As classes began this fall, so did a collective effort by West Michigan colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education across West Michigan have teamed together to create the informally titled, Michigan Community College Consortium, focused on renewable energy education.

“We have always believed we have a real obligation to the people of Michigan and we think this is the opportunity to work together, to share curriculum,” said Julie Parks, director of continuing education and professional development at Grand Rapids Community College.

GRCC and KVCC are two of the schools involved in the consortium, which also includes Muskegon Community College, Kellogg Community College, Glen Oaks Community College, Lake Michigan College, West Shore Community College, Montcalm Community College, as well as two campuses in Ferris State University and Grand Valley State University.

The group focuses on higher education’s role in preparing students for renewable energy industries.

At the end of the month, the consortium will have representatives meet with both the Department of Energy and the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. to try to gain support and federal grants for the group. The money would be used for various curriculum needs as well as the development of a common training facility to be constructed within the region.

“[The training facility] would be a place where businesses could train their workers and where students could come for classes,” said Cindy Buckley, executive director of training at KVCC’s Michigan Technical Education Center.

In addition to the one year credit-based certificate in wind turbine technology, KVCC will also offer a wind technician academy to begin in late October.

Meanwhile, other schools have taken differing roles related to renewable energy.

GRCC is creating curriculum regarding wind logistics, while at Muskegon Community College the focus is on shipping, and Montcalm Community College is working on solar technologies. Part of the goal, according to Buckley, is that with limited resources the schools within the region can work together without duplication of programs.

“All of these things are needed to grow this industry,” she said. “What can we do to support each other and developing top-notch programs that as a whole will support not just the specific maintenance of a turbine, but also the business aspect of project management, the shipping, and the many other areas we are looking at?”

The other major aspect of the group’s strategy includes is creating a close relationship with employers.

“Employers are driving this, because employers have to tell us what skills sets they are looking for in their workers,” Parks said.

There are 16 businesses that have signed on to be a part of the consortium as well as a growing number of local organizations. However, the recently formed group will not disclose the names of those involved until their roles and contributions are fully defined.

Approximately 50 companies in Michigan are involved in making some component of wind turbines and a handful of small turbine manufacturers in West Michigan, said John Patten, a Western Michigan University manufacturing engineering professor.

Patten played a major role in initiating the construction of the 40-foot wind turbine at WMU’s Parkview Campus in 2007 as well as helping KVCC in its efforts.

A residential-sized unit like the one at WMU generates about 1,500 kilowatts-per-year, and can provide up to 25 percent of the electricity for a home.

Manistee-based Mariah Power is just one of the residential turbine manufacturers that have emerged in West Michigan in recent years.

According to General Manager John Holcomb, educational institutions like the consortium and employers “go hand in hard.”

“Renewable energy is the thing of the future and it has positive solid footing on our carbon emissions ratio, but it has to be applied correctly,” he said.

Holcomb said a primary concern right now is that the industry as a whole has yet to really establish any standards.

“Once the knowledge [of the industry] becomes more public, it will force a standard. I believe that curriculum from the public education is going to be vital in making that happen,” he said.

The consortium hopes to accomplish just that. For schools involved without a renewable energy curriculum, the development of such is the first step. For schools like KVCC that have begun teaching, the goal becomes preparing their students for the workforce.

Maestas said she has learned “quite a bit” so far in the wind turbine course and hopes to walk away from the class with a knowledge-base that employers are seeking.

She also said she hopes the growing industry will help revive the economy.

“I hope it will bring jobs,” she said. “I hope us learning how to do it, we’ll be able to go out and find a job.”

However, to Rainwater, in addition to the cost factors it’s the public awareness that is driving this trend for environmentally friendly buildings.

“I think there is a larger understanding of the environmental issues that are happening out there, and I think there is just a ground swell of support from local citizens as well as policy makers and politicians to do something on sustainability,” he said.

Despite the tough economic times, local policies to promote energy-efficient building have thrived, according to Rainwater. Green initiatives have even helped revive certain aspects of the nation’s economy.

The USGBC’s Green Jobs Study released earlier this month predicts that green construction will support nearly 8 million jobs and add $554 billion in U.S. gross domestic product by 2013. Specifically LEED related spending would account for 230,000 of those jobs and $12.5 billion in GDP.

As more and more is invested into green jobs nation wide, it is only natural that construction would follow suit.

“There’s a trend, there’s no doubt about it,” Frey said about the increased interest in green building. “It’s not a fad.”