July 17, 2008

Amarillo, Texas, College Mulls Curriculum for Wind-Energy Jobs

By Kevin Welch, Amarillo Globe-News, Texas

Jul. 16--Schools in the region hope to deliver skilled workers to the growing wind-energy industry.

"Wind energy is more and more on the radar," said Paul Matney, vice president and dean of instruction at Amarillo College. "We can't be too far ahead of the curve with the industry, but we can't be too far behind."

A work group is investigating what it might do to train students to do operations and maintenance jobs on wind farms. Later this month, it will host industry representatives.

"We're trying to get a read from industry, some of the owner-operators," Matney said. "Would you be interested in hiring our students? What do they need to know to do the job?"

Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, N.M., has already committed to training technicians, enrolling students to begin the first semester of classes this fall and purchasing a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine from General Electric.

"It will be a 400-foot, full-bore commercial turbine," said John Yearout, director of public relations at Mesalands. "I call it the tallest classroom in the world. We hope to have it up by the end of October."

The school financed the purchase with $2.1 million in state money. It is also seeking state money to build a 60,000-square-foot facility for labs and a large workshop for the oversized pieces of the turbine.

About 130 potential students have expressed interest in the program, and 12 have enrolled to fill the 30 available slots, Yearout said.

While companies continue to build small wind farms in the region, larger ones are on the horizon if the Texas Public Utilities Commission orders transmission lines to be built from the Panhandle to the state's larger cities. The renewable energy job boom, including wind and solar, extends beyond Texas to the rest of the world.

About 2.3 million people worldwide work directly in renewables or indirectly in supplier industries, according to a study by the Worldwatch Institute. The wind power industry employs 300,000 of those workers.

Some projections put wind power employment at 2.1 million by 2030, according to Worldwatch.

General Electric has already promised to hire all of Mesalands' wind graduates for the first three years of the program.

Mesalands offers two ways to pursue a wind-energy career. Students can get a certificate in wind-energy technology in one year and go to work, Yearout said. They can also intern after the first year and finish an associate degree in another year.

Amarillo College is looking at both options.

"If it's not a totally new program, a certificate program that ties into an existing program, we can put it in place pretty fast," Matney said. "If it's a new degree program, we would have to do a needs assessment. We might get started with a certificate and then look at a degree program. Hopefully we can make a decision in the next couple of months."


--CREZ: The state's proposed Competitive Renewable Energy Zones are areas defined by tests as having high potential to produce wind energy. There are two in the Panhandle. If the Texas Public Utilities Commission makes the designation permanent at its meeting Thursday, that will allow transmission line builders to fast-track construction.

The commission is also scheduled to decide how much electricity can be transmitted from each CREZ and where the lines will run.

--Megawatt: Enough electricity to power 250 to 300 homes.

--ERCOT: The Electric Reliability Council of Texas is a not-for-profit entity that oversees the operation of the grid that covers most of Texas. Power from the Panhandle will go to cities in ERCOT.

--SPP: The Southwest Power Pool is a not-for-profit entity that oversees the operation of the grid that covers the Panhandle, the far northeastern corner of Texas, eastern New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and parts of Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri.


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Copyright (c) 2008, Amarillo Globe-News, Texas

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