Iowa prepares a bumper crop of wind energy professionals

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2012

To the academic mind of P. Barry Butler, Iowa’s success as a wind energy producer rests on a three-legged stool.

There are the nearly 3,000 wind turbines sprouting from farm fields across the state, producing renewable energy for Iowa’s power grid and generating millions of dollars in revenue for farmers who once tethered their livelihoods to the price of corn and soybeans.

There are the wind energy component manufacturers — like Acciona Windpower and TPI Composites — that have moved into the state to provide the hardware and expertise needed to harness the state’s wind and convert it into electricity.

And there are the human resources — like the aspiring engineers Butler teaches at the University of Iowa — who represent the future of an industry that has become so woven into Iowa’s economic fabric that the state’s higher education system has recalibrated itself to meet its needs.

Under the state-sponsored Iowa Alliance for Wind Innovation and Novel Development (IAWIND), educators are seeking to pool all of Iowa’s research and education resources for a common purpose of advancing wind energy in the state.

The alliance — which includes the three regent universities, Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa, as well as seven community colleges — has built a diverse curriculum that aims to train workers at every level of the wind power supply chain, as well as scholars who will push the envelope of research, engineering and design in wind power technology.

Butler, a mechanical engineering professor who is also the university’s executive vice president and provost, said he has watched the enthusiasm for wind energy ripple across the state. It is driving an unprecedented level of interest in disciplines like engineering, computer and materials science, and meteorology, the very fields needed to create a deep job pool for renewable energy innovation.

But Butler said he has seen a cooling trend lately, one driven by uncertainty about the wind power sector’s growth trajectory after 2012, when the federal production tax credit (PTC) that has fueled much of the recent wind power boom will expire.

“A few years ago, you’d meet people who’d changed their careers. Students I dealt with wouldn’t blink an eye; they would immediately go to the wind power industry,” said Butler, who in nearly three decades at Iowa has mentored several generations of young engineers, many of whom used to take jobs in the state’s agriculture equipment industry or seek office jobs in Des Moines, Chicago or Minneapolis.

Today, Butler said, “there’s still that excitement, but people are saying, ‘I better hedge my bets before deciding what industry I want to take a job in.'”

A whirl of classroom activity

Leaders like Butler are doing their best to keep Iowa’s classrooms humming, drawing on the expertise of the state’s major research universities as well as its community colleges, where technical training forms the core of a two-year college curriculum.

“To propel an industry, you need the best and the brightest going into it,” said Butler, who is also an adviser and member of the American Wind Energy Association’s board of directors.

While Butler and his colleagues are educating engineers and scientists for office and laboratory jobs, other members of the consortium are exposing students to the day-to-day rigors of operating and maintaining wind turbines.

At Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, in the state’s northwest corner, students can earn a 48-credit-hour diploma in wind energy and turbine technology. The program, which includes field work on real wind turbines, prepares students to install, maintain and service wind farms across the state and beyond. A more advanced associate in applied science degree program trains students in turbine diagnostics, computerized control and monitoring systems, and wind farm siting.

“It’s become an international model for training in the wind energy industry,” said Harold Prior, one of the founders of the Iowa Lakes degree program, who is now director of the Iowa Wind Energy Association. “There’s a desperate need for people with these types of credentials.”

Across the state, at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, students enrolled in the energy production and distribution technologies program are honing their skills working on real turbine equipment donated to the school by manufacturers Clipper Windpower and Acciona Windpower.

The college has also provided additional education and training to incumbent employees using grants administered by the State Energy Sector Partnerships. According to Kirkwood officials, the college has secured more than $464,000 to train aspiring workers as well as other students in jobs related to the wind, solar and steam energy sectors.

“These credentials show companies that hire our students that we are teaching the competencies they need to be successful in the work world,” Kirkwood Industrial Technologies Dean Jeff Mitchell said in a recent release.