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Energy Industry Careers in Colorado

Wind Energy Programs


Wind energy programs are beginning to blow across the continent. Depending on the path you choose, you could be learning to repair giant wind turbines, discovering the business end of wind energy, or doing research and development.

"The most exciting thing to me about studying in wind energy technology is the chance to work in a green renewable energy that can help solve part of our energy problems and dependence on foreign energy resources," says Stephen L. Ehl. He is an instructor of wind energy and turbine technology at Texas State Technical College.

At most schools, students interested in a more technical role are best served by a two-year associate of applied science degree. One-year certificates are also available. Grads become technicians who service, repair and install wind turbines.

Two-year associate of science degrees prepare students for management, project development and data analysis roles.

Students interested in research and development will need a four-year bachelor of engineering degree.

In 2009, two Colorado colleges added wind energy technology/technician programs.

Northeastern Junior College in Sterling now offers a wind energy technician associate of applied science degree. Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood offers a degree program as well as certificates in wind energy technology. Both programs prepare students for entry-level positions in the wind industry, as wind energy technicians, to repair and maintain wind turbines.

"I think the wind industry is just passing out of the wild, wild west stage and is starting to get a little more organized," says Neil Browne. He's a wind energy instructor and director of renewable energy at Northeastern Junior College.

"Before, if you walked in and said, 'I do a lot of work on my car in the backyard,' chances are, you could get hired in the maintenance crew just doing the periodic mechanical maintenance... Now they want their techs to come in with a little more training, plus have the ability to do some math, some communications [and have] working computer skills."

So in addition to electricity, electronics, fluid power, mechanics and large wind turbine generator technology, students gain basic skills in math, science, reading and communication.

Early on in the two-year program, students have the opportunity to climb a wind turbine to help them decide whether this physically demanding career is for them. Students are also required to participate in a summer internship and gain on-the-job training at an operational wind farm.

Graduates of the program may end up working for wind farm developers and owners, wind turbine manufacturers and warranty services, or various specialty support industries.

Many of the 17 people in Browne's class are nontraditional students. A few have just graduated from high school, but most are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Some are electricians. Others have worked in the oil field. They're used to hard outdoor work and are looking for retraining in a promising new field.

Browne says people are drawn to the field for a number of reasons. For one, it's a new, high-tech field with good job prospects. Also, starting salaries are $20 per hour. Also, if people have an interest in environmentalism and helping the country, the wind energy field can be very appealing.

Mike Schmidt is a wind energy technical program developer and instructor at Laramie County Community College in Wyoming. His school offers three streams for students. He says students usually favor the two-year degrees over the one-year certificate because it gives them more employment options.

Students in the associate of applied science program learn about industrial electricity and work with very sophisticated machinery. They study the utility side of turbines, both the control systems and the machine itself.

The associate of science degree requires more general education courses, in addition to the technical courses.

"It's really an advantage to students to see the hands-on side of the industry," says Schmidt. He says many students come through the program after they have completed a bachelor's or master's degree.

"The best students will be those that are dedicated, self-motivated — not afraid of hard work, and who can apply themselves to accomplish the task at hand," says Ehl.

He adds that once they're working, wind technicians will be on their own 300 feet up in the air. They must resolve problems themselves.

Ehl says the wind industry is booming and employment is available in construction, maintenance, repair, commissioning and management.

With such great job prospects, there is a lot of competition to enter specialty wind programs. The program at Laramie County Community College accepted its first year of students to start the fall of 2008. After the new program was posted on the website for 45 days, the college had upwards of 70 applicants and room for just 20.

There are very few engineering programs that specialize in wind energy. That's because engineering programs must be accredited, and the accreditation process can take several years. The whole wind industry is still very new.

Texas Tech University offers a doctoral-degree program in wind science and engineering — the first of its kind in the country. The University of Massachusetts Amherst offers a master's and a doctoral-level engineering program specializing in wind energy.

At Colorado State University engineering students can take an introductory class on wind engineering. But this is just one senior-level class offered as an elective.

"You can't just turn on a switch and come up with a wind energy engineering program and have it start next semester — it doesn't work that way — it takes years to develop," says Michael Kostrzewa. He's a senior research associate at Colorado State University. He also runs the Wind Application Center at Colorado State University, which installs wind turbines at rural Colorado schools.

"Right now, nobody was born into the wind energy [industry]," he says. "There are folks from the oil business... from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, construction."

"A student interested in wind energy [engineering] would be best served by mechanical engineering with an energy option or mechatronics option," says Marc Rosen. He's a professor of engineering. Options at his university include an energy engineering option and mechatronics engineering option. Mechatronics is technology that combines mechanics and electronics.

Rosen says university engineering degrees give students the background they'll need to design the technology. As an example, he explains how engineers make wind turbines more efficient, quieter and more attractive.

Also, there is more flexibility with an engineering degree. The set of skills can be applied to many other areas including other renewable energy sources.

"This industry — everything energy — is taking off," says Rosen. Soaring gas prices have allowed environmental science to combine with good business sense. Many governments are now setting aggressive targets to use renewable energy. In high school, math, science and English will be necessary courses. Rosen also recommends physics and chemistry.

"Students considering wind technology need to be up on their math skills. College algebra is a requirement for AC and DC circuits. Also, for the degree you will have English, humanities and communication electives. Any electrical knowledge that they may be able to gain would be very helpful," says Ehl.

Consider taking part in robotics competitions. Rosen says there is a "huge parallel" between robotics and wind turbines as they both use software, electronics and mechanical parts. He says experimenting with robotics is a good way to gauge whether or not you'd like working with wind turbines.

"Besides tuition fees, you also have housing, parking fees and textbooks. And steel toe safety boots are required to gain access to a wind farm and a wind turbine," says Ehl.