KVCC Opens Wind Energy Training Tower

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Wind – and the energy it produces – is a win-win proposition for Michigan and its residents, U. S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said Tuesday at the dedication of a 100-foot training tower for Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Wind Turbine Technician Academy.

The first woman elected to the Senate from Michigan said her state is poised for taking advantage of this growing force in alternative energy because its manufacturing workforce only needs to “fine tune its technical skills.”  The same goes for Michigan’s stable of manufacturers.

While KVCC’s one-of-its-kind training program for the next generation of wind-energy technicians will be filling in-demand jobs for the construction and maintenance of these power producers, Sen. Stabenow stressed that Michigan should also focus on “the making of these turbines.”

“Some 8,000 parts are needed to make a wind turbine, and we can make all of them in Michigan,” she said. She added that 12 companies have entered into solar and wind energy in Michigan because of a series of tax credits, and more should consider that path.

She lauded KVCC and its leaders for their vision in moving forward in wind energy because “it’s about jobs and the future.”  She called it seizing an opportunity in a new industry to spur economic growth.

Stabenow, recently named chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, sees a similar leadership role for Michigan in the transition to sustainable energy.  With agriculture ranked No. 2 on the state’s roster of vital economies, she believes that Michigan will also be pivotal as the nation explores biofuels.

For all of this to become reality, Stabenow emphasized the need for visionary leaders in education as showcased by KVCC. 

“The college has become a leader in Michigan and the nation in wind energy,” Stabenow said. “This program has put you on the map.”

Stabenow and her Democratic colleague Carl Levin, supported by the legislative delegation from Michigan, sponsored a congressionally directed grant that award $550,000 to the college through the U. S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. 

With the basic tower structure provided by the college, the federal funds financed the purchase and installation of the $280,000 worth of tower-related apparatus, while the balance of the funding providing specialized equipment for the wind-turbine academy that is based at KVCC’s Michigan Technical Education Center at its Groves Campus in Oshtemo.

The academy, now in its third version, graduated a second batch of wind-turbine technicians on Dec. 10, and a fourth 26-week training session for 16 students is scheduled to begin July 5 in the KVCC M-TEC.

Speaking for her six fellow members of the KVCC Board of Directors, Susan Miller, the newly elected chair, said: “I would like to say that all of us have felt 10 feet tall when we see the quality of the graduates of our Wind Technician Training Academy.  As they launch their careers, they are carving quite a reputation for themselves as highly trained, safety-first professionals in the growing field of wind energy. That speaks well for the academy, its instructors, and the vision of this college.”

With this KVCC alternative-energy program being the only one in the nation that is certified by Bildungszentrum fur Erneuerebare Energien in Germany, it now has a one-of-its-kind training tower to match that uniqueness.

“This exciting new tool will assure that our graduating technicians are fully trained to protect themselves and to rescue others if called upon to do so at massive wind-energy farms in the United States and around the world,” said James DeHaven, KVCC’s vice president for economic and business development. “They will be able to acquire, practice and perfect safe-climbing and emergency-exiting techniques.”

Added KVCC president Marilyn Schlack: “KVCC was proud to lead the way as the country’s first national training program certified by BZEE, and we were excited by the federal government’s support of our efforts to train the technicians needed to maintain and repair the giant turbines that populate wind-energy farms all over the world. Now KVCC will become known as the place where safety-first is the calling card in training these highly skilled technicians who carry out their craft  atop towers ranging from 200 to 400 feet tall as humanity looks forward to the development of a sustainable source of energy.”

As the latest asset in a work force development program that creates jobs and stimulates the economy in the burgeoning wind-energy industry, the 100-foot tower features three types of ladder-safety systems for comprehensive, broad-based training.

A 14-foot-in-diameter platform at the top was designed to allow rappelling exercises and simulations.  A specially designed ring also permits multiple trainees and instructors to safely tie off during lessons while others are performing exercises.

A second platform 30 feet above the ground promotes a faster repetition of climbs and descents, and the practice of rescue attempts without unnecessary stress on the equipment.

DeHaven said the training tower is also suited for professionals and other kinds of technicians who must be certified to climb safely.  KVCC will be offering training courses with certified instructors.  Companies can also rent time on the tower to conduct their own training by calling (269) 353-1253.

Academy graduates are already employed in the wind-energy industry and enrollees are recruited as they undergo training.

“By producing a highly skilled, wind-energy work force, the academy serves as an incentive for manufacturing and renewable-energy development in Michigan, the Midwest and beyond,” DeHaven said. “It is training the technicians that will be needed. It’s up to the state and federal governments and agencies to make Michigan the Wind Energy State. This will restore and rebuild our manufacturing base.”

The academy can be completed in six months, making the program viable for retraining workers and for the training of the next-generation work force. The program provides graduates with multi-craft credentials that are highly sought after by the wind-power industry for the construction, operation and maintenance of utility-size wind turbines. 

“Companies are already calling us to find out how they can meet our graduates who will earn individual certification through the BZEE and become a part of an international labor pool,” said Cindy Buckley, executive director of training and development at the M-TEC. “The projection is that between 1,500 and 2,400 new technicians are needed annually to support the growing wind-energy industry.  Starting wages range from $17 to $22 per hour for our graduates.”

The English equivalent of BZEE is “Renewable Energy Education Center.” Located in Husum, Germany, and founded in 2000, BZEE was created and supported by major wind-turbine manufacturers, component makers, and enterprises that provide operation and maintenance services. As wind-energy production increased throughout Europe, the need for high-quality, industry-driven, international standards emerged. BZEE has become the leading trainer for wind-turbine technicians across Europe and now in Asia.

A study by the U. S. Department of Energy identified the feasibility and potential rewards the United States would gain by pursuing the goal to generate 20 percent of the nation’s energy through wind by the year 2030. This speaks to employment opportunities as well — especially in this part of the United States with Michigan’s unique positioning in regards to the Great Lakes basin. 

Sailors have long known the power of the offshore winds.  More formal studies have confirmed those winds are consistent and powerful – enough to produce as much as 322,000 megawatts of electricity from wind turbines.  That’s 12 times more than the state’s entire peak demand.

The prospects are that wind power could greatly reduce the $24 billion that state residents and businesses pay each year in fossil-fuel imports.

Most – if not all of this – is within reach.  The Great Lakes Wind Council reports that about 20 percent of Michigan’s 38,000 square miles of Great Lakes bottomlands are in less than 100 feet of water. Some of the locations would be definitely off-limits while others are considered conditional.

But, according to the council, almost 550 square miles of that 20 percent are in relatively shallow areas with plenty of wind many miles off shore. Those would be perfect sites for wind farms to produce energy that is unlimited, natural and impact-neutral.

“Because Michigan is the only state completely inside the Great Lakes Water Basin and virtually surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes, it is poised to be a national leader as the United States moves toward a comprehensive, alternative-energy portfolio,” Schlack said.
“The winds of change are blowing stronger and stronger in this energy-producing field, and Kalamazoo Valley — with its one-year certificate for training wind technicians, the Wind Energy Center’s international academy to produce workers for the giant wind farms around the world, and our eight-credit course in which students design, fabricate and assemble a wind turbine – has emerged as a player on the state and national scene.”

The first step to gain access into the academy is to complete the written application, which can be downloaded at this web site – www.kvcc.edu/training. The fee has been $12,000. A math test is also part of the screening process, along with the results of a medical examination and documented work experience in technical fields.

The last step in the application process is a screening for an ability to climb and to work at great heights.  This will now be done on the newly installed tower.

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