NORFOLK - What may just be another blustery day for many northeast Nebraskans translates to vast potential for the region’s growing wind energy industry, and Northeast Community College’s Wind Energy Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree and diploma programs continue to keep pace with this rapidly expanding industry.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for wind turbine service technicians from 2014 to 2024 is expected to grow by 108 percent nationwide. By comparison, other installation and maintenance careers are expected to grow by a mere six percent over the same time period, and all career fields are expected to see only seven percent growth.
Nebraska contributes significantly to the industry’s expansion, too. Ranking fourth in the nation for wind energy resources, the state’s output has grown exponentially since 1998, when Nebraska’s four wind turbines produced about 183,000 kilowatt hours. By 2015, the state had 520 turbines in operation, and wind energy accounted for 6.9 percent of all in-state electricity production.
With the rapid expansion of the industry, the need for qualified technicians in the region has grown, too. Northeast Community College became the state’s first wind energy program of its kind in 2005 when it began offering classes as part of the electrician program.
By 2010, a Walmart Foundation Grant allowed the College to offer a one-year wind energy diploma, which was later expanded to an Associate of Applied Science degree in 2012. Funds for the expansion came from the Nebraska Department of Education and a USDA Department of Energy green energy grant.
“The wind industry is bringing jobs, bringing economic investment, and bringing clean energy across the country and across Nebraska,” said Shanelle Grudzinski, Associate Dean of Applied Technology at Northeast. “With 500 plus turbines in the state and more under construction, the need for trained technicians proficient in turbine construction and maintenance and repair continues to grow, as does technicians competent in daily operations.
“The Wind Energy program at Northeast is helping to support that growth by providing students with the knowledge and hands-on skills needed to readily fill those maintenance and operational positions.”
Since 2011, over 60 students have completed the College’s wind energy program, and Northeast remains the only institution in the state offering an AAS degree specifically in Wind Energy.
As part of the program, students operate and maintain a Micon 108 wind turbine located on the Norfolk campus and also gain hands-on experience with three other turbines in the shop. The program has recently moved to the Arlo Wirth Building on campus to expand its lab space.
Other recent additions include a new Mechanics II theory and lab course that enhances skills on generator gearbox repairs as well as a wealth of new certifications ranging from laser alignment to precision measurement.
Sophomore Kyle Gorsuch, Potter, says he didn’t know much about wind energy when he began Northeast’s AAS program, but the idea of improving his mechanical skills - and the opportunity to work at great heights - drew him to the field.
Gorsuch credits instructors Glen Lammers and John Liewer with aiding in his success. “They’re really knowledgeable about their field. All together, they want to push us to be better in what we’re trying to do,” he said. “They want to see us go out and find good jobs in the field and start building careers out of what we learn here.”
Gorsuch connected with Blattner Energy at a recent Northeast job fair on campus, which later led to an internship. He plans to pursue a career in turbine construction. “The things we’ve learned (at Northeast) will set us up for success either way,” whether students choose to pursue turbine construction or maintenance.
Although Gorsuch plans to travel extensively for his career, the majority of the College’s Wind Energy graduates remain in Nebraska.
Currently, the College’s service area is home to seven active wind farms, including the 118-turbine Prairie Breeze Wind Energy Farm that spans Antelope, Boone and Madison counties as well as smaller farms near Crofton, Petersburg, Springview, Bloomfield and Ainsworth.
As Northeast Community College continues to expand its wind energy program, three new wind farms are being developed in the region. Prairie Breeze II in Antelope and Boone counties went online in January, while Prairie Breeze III southeast of Elgin, and Grande Prairie near O’Neill are both scheduled to begin operations this year. With 200 turbines covering 54,000 acres, Grande Prairie, developed by BHE renewables, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, will be the Nebraska’s largest.
Additionally, the state’s rural residents generally hold a positive view toward alternative energy sources like wind. A 2015 poll conducted by the University of Nebraska found that 80 percent of rural Nebraskans agree that solar and wind energies should be developed more in the state, and about 75 percent believe Nebraska should invest more funds in wind and solar energies.
Liewer says the College’s 20-county service area has seen an increase in wind farms largely because of population density, energy consumption and transmission capacity. “Nearly all the wind energy generation in our state is for consumption in our state, so it is more efficient and cost effective to keep the generation closer to the majority population,” he said.
He says that as companies expand transmission lines to the west and capacity increases, development is likely to increase along with it, especially if Nebraska enters the wind energy export market.
Liewer’s colleague Lammers emphasizes the considerable economic benefit the industry offers to the state’s rural areas, a benefit that’s highly likely to keep growing. “This is a great-paying, highly skilled job if you want to live close to home.”
PHOTO CUTLINE - Wind Turbine
Students in Northeast Community College’s Wind Energy program train on a Micon 108 wind turbine located on the Norfolk campus. Since 2011, over 60 students have completed the College’s wind energy program, and Northeast is the only institution in the state offering an Associate of Applied Science degree specifically in Wind Energy (Courtesy Photo).