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Archive for Friday, June 19, 2009

Community college tries to keep up with demand for technicians

June 19, 2009

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A new crop in Kansas

Poised as the third best state in the country for wind power and on the cusp of a renewable energy revolution, Kansas has the potential to be at the epicenter of the wind industry.

— Training wind turbine technicians is such a new field that there aren’t textbooks to teach the courses. Often, students are so in demand that they are hired before they have a chance to finish the program.

These are the challenges that face Cloud County Community College instructor Lucas Chavey.

Chavey is one of three teachers at the school’s Wind Energy Technology program in Concordia. The program is one of about 30 wind energy schools in the country, and it’s the only one in Kansas.

Two years ago, the community college offered its first wind energy classes, months before the first wind turbines started to go up eight miles south at the Meridian Way Wind Farm.

Four students took those classes. This fall, the school is looking at 110 students in the program and a waiting list 50 people long.

“What we are trying to do is train people and rapidly because they are putting up more turbines than we can supply workers for,” Chavey said.

He points to last year’s bumper crop of wind farms that went up across the country. The industry projected 1,300 new turbine technicians would be needed. Schools across the country only could provide about 300 new technicians.

As of now, companies are spending money and time training technicians.

“If you have done wind technician training, you are almost guaranteed to find a job. The demand is so strong out there,” said Christine Real de Azua, a spokesperson for the American Wind Energy Association.

And even Chavey’s story is a testament to how great the need for wind technicians and their instructors are.

Chavey, a native of nearby Clyde, earned a physics degree at Fort Hays State University and went to work for a contractor with the Department of Defense in San Antonio. When he came back home to raise a family, the closest thing he could find in his field was work as a service technician for a heating and plumbing company.

Until the wind farm came to town, that is.

He was one of the first students to sign up for the community college wind energy technology program in 2007. He did a year and a half of course work and internships before becoming an instructor in fall 2008.

“Anyone with industry experience is not going to come out of the industry to teach, they make so much more money,” Chavey said.

Among the first challenges for students at Cloud County Community College is climbing turbines several hundred feet high, a task that requires a 15-pound harness and physical endurance.

They then move on to learning the inner workings of the wind turbine’s electric, hydraulic and mechanical system.

While the school has labs in its classrooms, this year the program will have access to three wind turbines to help with training. One is an old turbine from Westar Energy’s Jeffrey Energy Center.

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