GRCC leads consortium for alternative energy training

November 7, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Teaching a class on auto repair and maintenance isn't too challenging, if your school has a car to work on. But what if the class needs to learn how to repair and maintain a 2.3 megawatt Siemens wind turbine?

The Siemens 2.3 MW has a 90-ton nacelle that houses the guts of the generating machinery and is 262 feet above the ground. The turbine blades are about 165 feet long, and the complete unit costs millions of dollars to buy and install.

"It's a pretty expensive proposition, some of this stuff we will need for training," said Julie Parks, director of work force training programs at Grand Rapids Community College.

Parks, who just returned from a trip to Spain to meet with manufacturers of alternative energy equipment, is heading a consortium of community colleges and universities from southwest Michigan to Traverse City that want to share the time and expense in setting up a training facility. Parks was in Spain with an executive from Rockford Construction, which has a partnership with a Spanish company that specializes in the logistics of wind farm construction.

According to Parks, Birgit Klohs, head of The Right Place economic development organization in Grand Rapids, urged educators last year to consider the boom in alternative energy, which was going to create new jobs in West Michigan and would result in a need for worker training in totally new technologies.

In August, representatives of western Michigan colleges and universities and some businesses met at the GVSU Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon. In addition to community colleges such as GRCC, Muskegon and Montcalm, other colleges and universities involved include GVSU, Ferris, Western, Hope and Aquinas.

Parks said there is an alternative energy worker training curriculum developed in Spain that is used all over the world — with the exception of the U.S., which, up to now, has lagged behind the other developed nations in development of alternative energy.

Parks said the goal of the trip to Spain was to "bring that curriculum back to Michigan."

Manufacturers such as United Solar Ovonics, Cascade Engineering and MasTech in Manistee are already producing equipment that generates electricity from wind or solar energy, plus West Michigan electrical contractors such as Bazen and Windemuller have announced they will specialize in installation of wind and solar devices for consumers.

"We know right now that we can document over 2,000 jobs that we need right away in renewable and alternative energy in West Michigan alone," said Parks.

"The eventual goal of (the consortium) is to create a facility" for training, said Rob Spohr, dean of occupational education at Montcalm Community College near Greenville.

When Spohr heard of the budding consortium, he said he "jumped in to help them write the business plan" for a training facility, which Parks said will require an estimated $16 million to start.

Spohr said the facility would not be limited to study of wind turbines but is "geared toward renewable energy, period."

United Solar Ovonics, which occupies the former Electrolux plant in Greenville and is now a major employer in Montcalm County, produces photovoltaic cells that generate electricity. There is a need for a facility where workers could learn correct installation of photovoltaic cells, said Spohr.

Spohr said that most of the problems that United Solar Ovonics has encountered "are in the installation end. It's not their product failing: It's improper installation. People don't know how to install their product."

Spohr predicted there also will be a need to train first responders in dealing with emergency situations where wind or solar energy devices are involved — such as a fire in a house that has solar panels on the walls or roof.

He speculated that wind turbine nacelles could be displayed on the ground at the training facility so that people could examine the machinery inside them.

"A lot of (manufacturing) companies want to break into alternative energy and they could probably do something, but they have no clue as to what's inside these things," said Spohr.

In that regard, the training facility could also serve as "an economic development tool," he added.

Spohr said businesses that are in the alternative energy industry were invited to the MAREC meeting so the college and university people could ask them for recommendations on types of training that will be needed in years to come. He said a lot of what they heard were things "we hadn't even thought of before. We were just thinking this little (training facility), and then by the time they got done, it was much bigger than we had anticipated."

"Right now, we're looking for funding," he added.

On the trip to Spain, Parks and other representatives of the consortium stopped in Washington to meet with the Department of Energy and Michigan's senators, regarding funding sources for the initial investment in the training center.

"We believe we have a plan to make it self-sustaining," she said.

In March, Rockford Construction announced it had formed a partnership with Spain-based Bergé Logística Energética to form Rockford Bergé, an organization combining wind farm construction with comprehensive logistical services. The Right Place helped bring the two companies together.

Roger Rehkopf, vice president of construction services at Rockford, said GRCC contacted Rockford soon after that announcement, and the company quickly became a member of the collaboration among the colleges.

Early on, Rockford realized there was a lack of training programs for people who will work in construction, operation and maintenance of alternative energy systems.

"Number one is safety," said Rehkopf, noting that alternative energy involves high voltage electricity and, in the case of commercial wind turbines, massive parts and heights.

Rehkopf said Parks was introduced to a partner of Bergé Logística Energética in Spain, which has a “world-class” training program in place. He said the hope is that "we can actually speed things up in the United States."

According to Rehkopf, Rockford Bergé is close to starting a couple of projects in Michigan, including a large wind turbine or two at the city of Grand Rapids water pumping station on Lake Michigan in Grand Haven Township. Another project involving Rockford is the offshore wind data platform GVSU plans to put in Lake Michigan several miles out from Muskegon.

The Holland Board of Public Works is also involved with the college consortium and was represented at the MAREC meeting by Dan Nally, the utility's business services director.

Nally said the Holland BPW will potentially need workers who are trained for operation and maintenance of alternative energy systems. The BPW has operated a meteorological tower in the eastern Upper Peninsula, testing wind conditions on 1,500 acres near DeTour for over a year. Nally said there has been no decision yet as to whether the BPW will erect commercial wind turbines there.

Nally said the BPW also has some small residential-sized turbines in operation in Holland and is exploring several opportunities in the middle part of Michigan that may be developable as wind farms, but, he said, “We have not entered into any formal agreements."

There has been public speculation that the BPW would be involved with the college consortium in the establishment of a training center near Holland with a functioning wind turbine. Nally confirmed that "we have discussed it but we certainly don't have any firm commitment or even a firm plan as to what is going to be done."

"We value any assistance (the Holland BPW) can give the college consortium," said Parks, although she also noted that there are no firm offers or commitments, only very early discussions with Holland BPW, the city of GR and other consortium partners.

Parks is feeling the pressure to put the training plan together for the consortium as soon as possible.

Training, she said, will "start in the spring because we have companies that are ready."

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