As part of our ongoing series addressing energy education, I spoke with Daniel W. Lutat, Director of the Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program at Iowa Lakes Community College. He shared his thoughts on the unique aspects of Iowa Lakes’ wind energy education and training, where wind energy technology is headed, and what role he thinks wind will play in America’s energy future.
Why is wind energy and preparing students to work in the wind energy field important?
To answer the first part of the question, wind energy is an important part of our nation’s energy future because of its abundance and low carbon footprint. While the initial investment to develop power grids and wind farms is significant, the benefits are tangible and long lasting. We can provide a reliable source of power without emissions and without consuming natural resources that aren’t replaceable. At the same time, the cost is competitive, so the product of this new technology can be brought to consumers at a price they are willing to pay. Wind energy isn’t a silver bullet by itself, although the ability to make our consumable resources last much longer is one step toward energy independence. Wind, in combination with solar, fossil and nuclear sources, postures us with reliable, affordable energy as we search for new technologies that are good for consumers and the planet.
The second part of the question is easy to answer: someone has to have the skills to maintain the wind generating machines. Training America’s workforce to fill those jobs has a positive impact on our economy and creates a large field with a sustainable workforce. Some reports have said that we need up to 500,000 jobs to support the country’s renewable energy production goals, so it’s clear that skilled technicians are the key to keeping the power generation resources in commission. With current designs, technicians spend a great deal of time working at height, so we need a renewable pipeline of technicians that can replace those that have been in the field and are ready to transition to other parts of the industry, such as management. That’s where quality training comes in: this is a field that is not for the average technician. A strong math and science aptitude is required, and the skills take time and practice to master. With a strong foundation of fundamental knowledge at the outset, we prepare technicians to leave Iowa Lakes Community College and complete more specific training when they reach the field.
Where did the Wind Energy & Turbine Technology Program at Iowa Lakes find its beginnings?
The program here evolved in the early 2000s, and by 2003, the idea to develop training for wind energy technicians took shape. Separately, but at the same time, the college’s leadership had made the decision to purchase a turbine as an energy savings investment. As the proponents of both ideas brought their vision to reality, 2004 saw the first class of 15 students at the Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program, and the college’s Vestas V-82, 1.65-megawatt turbine was commissioned in early 2005. From a program with one instructor who came from the wind industry to teach in a two-room facility, we’ve grown tremendously due to the demand for qualified technicians. We now house 6 labs and four lecture rooms, with two training nacelles to go along with the college’s turbine. As our campus matures, we continue to improve the learning experience for our students. We now accept 102 freshmen each fall, and with returning students from last year, we have a total of 176 on board. Keeping pace with the demand is a challenge being tackled nation wide, and there are a great number of educators partnering with industry to meet the need for highly qualified technicians.
What kind of training does the program offer to students looking for green energy jobs? Is hands-on training available?
We train students on a wide array of subjects, from the sighting of turbines and their history, to programmable logic and data acquisition systems. Our curriculum exposes students to a broad range of subjects, with a heavy technical emphasis in the electrical, mechanical and electronic areas. Our goal is to ensure that our graduates possess the necessary skills to work on advanced systems that employers will ask them to maintain. We give extensive hands-on training as students work through demonstration of theories learned in laboratories and progress to the point where they build SCADA systems and learn supervisory control and data acquisition through application. With our training nacelles in development, students assist with building learning laboratories that emulate what they’ll see in the field. We also use the training nacelles for safety and rescue training, along with the college’s turbine for climb training in the 70-meter tower. Coupled with the college’s other renewable energy offerings, we give students the tools they need to compete in a competitive, yet plentiful, job market, with a future that promises growth.
What have graduates of the Energy Institute gone on to accomplish in the green energy field?
Most of our graduates move into the operating and maintenance of wind farms, although there are many areas in the wind energy field that they might wind up in, from manufacturing to instrumentation. Some have gone on to pursue engineering degrees, and one former student actually created a small-scale trainer to demonstrate basic concepts of wind power generation. Others have gone on to establish training programs in other areas of the country, or progress to lead technician and site manager positions. While our focus is on the O&M technician, there’s no limit to the creativity our graduates can bring to the field, and we’re certain that skilled technicians will play a vital role in giving engineers the ideas they need to make turbines better and safer.
In what areas do you see the biggest room for growth in the wind energy field?
Personally, I think the biggest room for growth is in the design and fielding of new designs of turbines. I often refer to the turbines of today as the biplanes of the wind industry, since we’ve yet to break through design barriers and paradigms that will make them more efficient, safer, and easier to maintain. As the field develops turbine reliability and maintainability, new systems and technologies will emerge that make the machines of the future look much different than they do today. Much like the love affair our country developed with powered flight in the 20th century, the future of the wind energy field promises to yield the same kind of innovations that will have a positive impact on our lives. It’s hard to imagine America without air power, and increasingly, it’s becoming that way with wind power. I have no doubt that wind energy will be a strong pillar of our nation’s energy future, and coupled with our other energy resources, will help us lessen our dependence on consumables. Here in Iowa, we have the capacity to produce over 19 percent of our energy needs in-state, and we continue to develop as wind energy leaders, from education to production.
How has the Wind Energy Program at Iowa Lakes affected campus or community awareness of green energy initiatives?
Without a doubt, the surrounding area has a real sense of ownership and pride in Iowa Lakes Community College and the impact we have in the renewable energy field. We had the good fortune of being featured in a nationally run Duracell battery commercial, which drew interest and student applications from around the country. We take every opportunity to speak locally, from schools to community organizations, and participate in nationwide conferences that promote the wind energy field. We’re also helping the Occupational Health and Safety Administration learn more about the industry as well. Most recently, we hosted a training event with Edison Mission Energy, OSHA and Tech Safety Lines, where OSHA’s Region 5 field team was given climb and rescue training to better prepare them for working at height. They gained a deep appreciation for what wind energy technicians experience daily, and learned much about the safety focus the industry continues to develop. Through efforts like these, we continue to promote the field and encourage those interested to pursue careers that will have a lasting impact on America’s energy future.