Training for top jobs

A tall white pole with the wings of a plane can change the future of energy production by using the wind. Laramie County Community College offers a degree in wind energy to help this.

Wind turbines can be seen across the state of Wyoming. They have been a bit of a controversial subject on whether they are very helpful in bringing enough power and energy to support the state. These tall machines are a possible future in energy. LCCC offers a technical degree that trains students in Wind Energy.

Steve Hrkach, an LCCC Wind Technology Program instructor, said for “the last 10 years, the degree has become a growing industry.” Wyoming and other states require that a “portion of the power that the state uses has to come from renewables with renewable offsets,” Hrkach said.

This has driven the industry to become bigger and also take advantage of the “tax credit/break that the federal government has offered,” Hrkach said.

The more turbines that are built brings the need for more technicians to man these huge machines. But to train technicians, one needs the right kind of training and schooling.

“Wyoming is not a very wind-friendly state. But there is a lot of wind here. We have an option to actually produce wind and export the power that we produce from the wind to other states,”  Hrkach said.

LCCC’s two-year degree trains technicians, therefore it is a technical degree but does pertain to some aspects in business affairs. The degree is considered an Associate of Applied Science. General education classes are required, such as college algebra and English. The degree objective is to take apprentices or beginners and train them in advanced technology with what they need for future jobs.

The students are taught how to use heavy equipment, which in turn teaches them the safety in the use of electricity, operating equipment, and more. They are also given FR-rated clothing, which Hrkach says is, “fire-rated clothing that’s used in the industry to make sure there is any kind of accident or incident to mitigate some of the risk of that.”

The students are also given hands-on training with the lab that the school has provided that contains the massive hub of a wind turbine.

Many schools in the nation offer certificates for the industry, whereas LCCC offers them a degree, which in turn helps them to get a better-paying job. A degree is not necessary for the industry, but the employers do look for people who have had that training needed and required for the job.

Internships are offered as opportunities to the industry, but they are competitive and do pay money to the students who are hired. The classes are 10- to 12-weeks long and take up the entire summer. They tend to give the students the reality and experience they need to see if it is actually the right step they need or want in their future career.

Many of the students who come to LCCC for this degree are out of state, and after completing their courses, most move elsewhere or return from where they were originally from. Hrkach said “a small portion, which is about one-third actually come from the city of Cheyenne.”

Hrkach is hoping that he can get into the high schools and introduce the degree to students to have them see, “this is training…you’re learning a trade, you’re learning a skill here…”

The skills required to work at a wind plant include mathematical, mechanical, technical, electrical and physical strength as well as intellectual abilities. Hrkach refers to the degree and training as “the jack of all trades.”

The degree focus on three areas: “Electrical, mechanical and hydraulics. We work with power generation distribution; we work with signals… going all over the sight with sensors with instrumentation… you are always, always, always, constantly learning,” Hrkach said.

One time in the first semester, the students get the chance to climb a tower, which will show the instructor if the student is capable of climbing to the top of a turbine, which is about 200 to 300 feet off the ground, and whether or not they have the strength needed for the job. A first time hire in wind turbines requires a “climb test.” The students get the chance to climb a 150-foot tower. But there is a safe way and a wrong way to climb.

The students also take trips to several places such as “a blade plant in Windsor, a substation for a wind farm which has 230,000 volts of electricity and the Cheyenne Prairie Generation Station, which is a natural gas-fired turbine that creates electricity with Black Hills Energy,” Hrkach said.

LCCC students went on a recent trip to the McFadden Wind Farm in Rock Riverton April 4 to see the substation. Afterward, they went to the Operations and Maintenance building to see how the techs actually start their jobs and plan out their days.

“Black Hills Energy wants to put up a 40-megawatt wind farm closer to Cheyenne west of the (Microsoft) data center and Walmart distribution center,” Hrkach said.

This would give the students the option of not having to travel so far away. Black Hills basically builds all its wind farms where they can get the most wind. Currently the job market in the wind energy industry has a huge need for technicians. Hrkach said one of the biggest problems for this kind of industry is “that there is not enough throughput. The PTC or Production Tax Credit is the group that is pushing a lot of companies to hurry up and get some wind farms that have been projected for the wind farm projects to be installed so they can take the advantage of the last bit of the production tax credit. When a wind farm project is ready, they need technicians to do the construction, technicians to do the commissioning and then technicians for the servicing. There are more jobs out there than the people qualified to do them.”

The industry is a well-paying job that provides full benefits and a 401k.

Hrkach said that “these machines make a difference in helping with the cost of electricity, and that, wind turbines are competitive with coal and gas and hydro…”

One technician is needed to man 10 turbines, which makes the cost more effective, however, wind is needed to keep the machines going. The cost of each machine is about $1 million a megawatt. But because of how far technology has come, companies are trying to design bigger machines to produce more energy. The bigger the machine, the more it produces. The downfall is “you have to have grid power to make power,” Hrkach said.

“Most wind farms have about 80 to 100 turbines. Every turbine has what they call a ‘nameplate rating.’ Depending on what the wind speed is determines how much wind power it has. One thousand kilowatts is the rate power needed for one turbine. A turbine’s power is determined by how much wind and kilowatts it has,” Hrkach said.  

For example, Hrkach said calculating a turbine’s power requires taking the “kilowatts, hours a day, and days a year. An equation would be 1,000 times 24 times 365 times 0.38 equals how much wind power is produced, then multiply that by the wholesale cost of power. It is anywhere from two to four cents a kilowatt hour. The perfect wind would give you how much one turbine can make in a year. Wyoming is 38 to 39 percent in wind power capacity. Turbines are designed to last for 25 to 30 years. It takes about 10 years for the turbines to pay for itself and then after that is the profit.”

Wind energy companies will utilize power purchase agreements, which help private companies build and launch wind farms.

“Power is based on a grid and is available to any part of that grid,” Hrkach said. The U.S. has about 4-5 components on a grid. You have entities taking power off the grid and consumers taking off the grid. The amount of power that is needed is the amount of power they need to produce with the wind turbines.”

According to Hrkach, the money spent to purchase these turbines do not originate from taxes, “that’s usually private investment or it’s a utility that’s going to do that…”

Most of the LCCC students who obtain and finish this degree do get a very good paying job, Hrkach said. These however are not all at wind farms; the degree offers and teaches many skills, which can be used in various jobs that require those skills.

Hrkach said that he has about, “10 to 20 percent of his students who never set foot at a wind turbine.”

Students have branched out to other resource fields such as coal and gas. Hrkach said that he does ponder if maybe he should have “a more industrial maintenance degree with an emphasis on wind because they can provide the qualified technicians to do the same type of work in different industries.”  

“When these guys interview, when they take the tests, when they do the practicals, they realize the skill sets they have learned here (at LCCC) do translate into their jobs,” Hrkach said.

The fund for the program originally came from the National Science Foundation, which provided the grant money.

Some of the items that LCCC has in its labs is from the NSF, which is “a state of the art, world class lab,” and according to Hrkach, brings amazement to those who visit the school. The other money comes from student fees that replenishes the supplies the students use as well as the Perkins fund. The whole lab of LCCC was purchased largely through grant money that NSF provided.


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