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Student, Highland Community College
Academic/Researcher, Freeport, Illinois
Thanks to an aggressive renewable electricity standard that requires utilities to get 25 percent of their power from renewable energy resources by 2025, Illinois is fast becoming a leader in wind power development. By the end of 2008, the state will have more than 1,000 megawatts (MW) of wind power capacity—a big jump from a little more than 100 MW in 2005.
It takes a lot to impress an Army brat who grew up in nine states and on two continents. But Tanner Clenney, now 20, still remembers the first time he saw a wind turbine. During a cross-country road trip at age 12, he spotted one in the hills. “They were strange,” he recalled. “These big, tall, spinning things just attracted me.”
Seven years later, Clenney was entering his second year of college. He had been following a general course of study, hoping to find some inspiration for a career path. That inspiration came from the wind turbines that were sprouting up in his area.
“I’ve been working since I was 12 or 13 at odd jobs, and I realized the importance of skilled labor,” said Clenney. “When I saw that wind farms had pretty much doubled in production since 2006, I was interested in getting involved.”
The wind industry currently employs 50,000 people nationwide, but a recent Department of Energy report projected that the number of jobs could balloon to as many as 500,000 over the next 20 years. A handful of colleges and universities are capitalizing on that growth, developing programs to train students to enter the field.
Clenney is on the cutting edge of that trend, joining the first class of the new Highland Community College Wind Turbine Technician Program, a two-year associate’s degree the school developed with EcoEnergy of Freeport, Illinois. Students get hands-on training in turbine technology, maintenance, safety and economics.
“We learn about all the different ends of the business so we can figure out which aspect or field we’d want to get into,” Clenney said.
During the first month of classes students scaled a nearly 300-foot tall turbine. “It’s cramped quarters in there,” said Clenney. “You can lean your back against the other side of the tower when you’re climbing up.”
The mechanics of the massive turbines up close impressed him. “The blades of the turbines are so perfectly balanced that you can move them with just your hand,” Clenney said. The climb cemented his interest in operating and maintaining turbines.
But the road to graduation for Clenney will be an exhausting one. He works full-time loading trucks and driving semi-trucks at a Wal-Mart distribution center to pay his tuition and mortgage. There are days when he gets up at 3 a.m., works until 5 p.m., and then drives an hour to attend night classes.
His demanding schedule will be well worth it. Clenney expects to double his income after graduation, and the high demand for skilled labor in new renewable energy projects makes his job prospects bright. General Electric recently offered jobs to three entire graduating classes at a similar program at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, New Mexico.