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Wind Energy Technical Program Developer/Instructor, Laramie County Community College
Academic/Researcher, Cheyenne, Wyoming
One of the most effective advances the industry has developed for increasing the output and reducing the costs of wind power is building larger turbines with longer blades and placing them on taller towers. For example, a 50-kilowatt turbine with a rotor diameter of 15 meters was considered large in the 1980s, but today’s typical land-based turbines generate 30 times as much electrical output (1.5 megawatts) with a rotor diameter that is five times larger (77 meters).
For Michael Schmidt, 45, a recent offer to establish a new wind energy program at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming, was too good to pass up. The state’s natural beauty helped him convince his wife to make the move from Iowa. The fact that Wyoming has vast wind resources didn’t hurt either.
“Nationally, Wyoming is one of the top 10 states for wind energy,” said Schmidt. “It’s a relatively untapped market so far because the infrastructure for exporting electricity has not really been developed to support the kind of expansion that can take place here. But that is changing very rapidly.”
Schmidt offers a well-rounded program that prepares students to repair and maintain the systems that compose a wind turbine. “These machines are very, very sophisticated,” said Schmidt. “They’re large and they’re being developed at the cutting edge of technology. The turbines have integrated systems—electrical, hydraulic and mechanical systems all working together to perform a function. The program is very technical.”
To ensure prospective students will be able to handle the technical course work, Schmidt requires them to pass an algebra assessment exam to get into the program. Another informal prerequisite is being comfortable working hundreds of feet in the air. That test will come within weeks of the first semester during a tour of a Duke Energy wind farm a few miles outside Cheyenne.
“It’s extremely important that students understand just exactly what they’re getting into,” explained Schmidt. “After that initial climb, I’ve seen students make the decision that this just isn’t for them.”
The college’s two-year associate’s degree in applied science is the most popular of the three options in the Laramie College wind program. Students will learn the basics of electrical and mechanical engineering and wind energy in the first year. “Fundamentals of AC/DC electricity,” “Intro to Wind Energy,” and “Climb Safety and Tower Rescue” are a sampling of the course titles.
Between their first and second years, students will receive on-site training during summer internships. One student will intern on a wind farm in Ireland. In the second year, Schmidt’s students will learn about power generation, transmission and distribution, and wind turbine schematics.
By the time they graduate, most students will find jobs servicing and repairing wind turbines. Others will work in project construction, site analysis, or project development. Whatever the position, Schmidt is confident his students will have no trouble finding work.
“The prospects for a student who successfully completes our program are 100 percent,” he said. “I’ve seen students get three or four offers within two weeks following graduation. I think the opportunities at this point are terrific. It’s not just the pay, but the pay is extremely good.”
Schmidt goes on to explain that many European-based wind energy companies have raised the bar on technicians’ employment packages here in the United States. “A lot of our students working for European companies are starting out with four weeks vacation, 15 to17 paid holidays, and very good 401(k)s. In order to compete for some of the best students, some of the U.S. companies have to change some of their benefits packages to match the European model. It makes for some great opportunities for these technicians who are successful in the program.”