When Iowa led the way with America’s most assertive push to develop wind into a resource that will help us get to the next major solution in energy over the coming century, few realized how prophetic that vision of a renewable energy future would be. Today, a generation of young minds brings a different view of the world and how to blend resources effectively in addressing our top human challenges: access to clean, reliable energy and access to clean water resources.
“For the next several decades, wind energy will grow, and the breakthroughs enabled by technological advancements will show us how to maximize this energy source in ways we didn’t have at our disposal 30 years ago,” said Dan Lutat, director of sustainable energy resources and technologies at Iowa Lakes Community College. “We’ve seen a glimpse of a future that combines technology and the environment and have brought our environmental studies programs under the sustainable energy resources and technologies umbrella.”
Iowa Lakes Community College has 85 students on board, with the bulk in wind and environmental studies.
“We’ve seen significant growth in electrical and engineering technology, with HVAC poised to do the same,” he said. “Placement takes care of itself, with each of these industries growing in double digits — wind leads the way, in triple-digit growth — and students are finding plentiful internships and meaningful income after graduation. We provide students with deliberate contact points with employers and engage our Career Resource Center actively in preparing students to present themselves to industry.”
Partnerships and Job Placement
The college’s partnerships continually evolve and have grown exponentially over the past several years.
“In wind, if you can name an employer, chances are we have a graduate there,” Lutat said. “Companies like Siemens, GE, Vestas, NextEra, Duke Energy, Granite Services International, Mitsubishi, MidAmerican Energy, Alliant Energy, Iberdrola Renewables, Windtest-North America, One Way Building Services — and the list goes on, from manufacturing and automation to siting analysis, operations and maintenance.”
He said electrical, HVAC and engineering technology graduates are employed across the spectrum, from local contractors to manufacturing and utilities, with companies like Comfortech, KW Electric, Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative (Touchstone), Valero, Ag Partners, Sukup, Cargill, Novasyme, Black Diamond, Algonquin Energy and others across the country and right here at home.
Wind energy in Iowa provides thousands of jobs already — currently hovering at the 6,000 mark and set to grow with expansion in utility-scale wind across the state, and in particular northwest Iowa. Visionary leadership is keeping Iowa at the forefront through outreach and promotion of education and workforce development, engineering and research driven by the Iowa Energy Center and investors like MidAmerican, Google, Siemens and Vestas, to name a few.
“The most important attribute our graduates bring to the field is a core transferrable skill that they can take into virtually any industry if they change their spots and pursue other interests,” Lutat said.
Challenges are ever-present, he said, with the main challenge being the number of technical workers.
“We need far more technicians than we have the ability to produce at present — and I’m talking about properly trained technicians. There is no shortcut to building a good technician, and while people like to promote the engineering jobs needed, the demand for technicians is exponentially greater. A person with the necessary troubleshooting and problem-solving skills, coupled with the ability to work with teams, work safely at heights and put a responsibility for others into practice is difficult to find.”
He said their graduates, for example, find the biggest challenge upon graduation is choosing which offer to accept. A problem that’s good to have, he said, although it illustrates that America’s wind energy workforce is starving not for engineers, but for people who can maintain the national energy assets that populate our nation’s landscape.
“This is not a field for the average technician. It’s a field for doers, and we need them now more than ever,” Lutat said.
Future of Wind Energy
Wind is always looking to improve, from artificial intelligence that maximizes current install designs to make turbines and sites more effective and more reliable, to transmission over great distances with less power loss so that America’s load centers have the power to produce. Improvements also look toward bridging the gap between utility-scale generation and smaller-scale turbines, making small and medium wind applications more affordable for municipalities, agriculture and industry.
Iowa Lakes Community College is currently engaged with a 25-kilowatt prototype vertical axis turbine on its college farm in Emmetsburg, made possible in part by a grant from the Iowa Energy Center.
“It’s on the verge of a milestone certification period and demonstrates the beginning of a sustainability model that will benefit the college farm and illustrate that workable solutions, combined with innovation and aesthetics, can achieve meaningful results that are scalable and reliable for applications that don’t require utility scale power,” Lutat said. “Such models can help Iowa export more of this endless wind energy resource and keep Iowa on the leading edge of wind energy development well beyond utility scale applications.”
He said people with the fortitude to try something new will own the future, and anytime people have the opportunity to do so, they should take the leap. And the future looks bright with the environment in focus.
“Everything we do in the coming years will begin and end with the environment in mind, and we believe that teaching how these systems support one another is the future of educating people who will become stewards of those resources, Lutat said. “It’s a journey we’ve begun, and one that complements what future workers will believe is important. The bottom line is that the future is only limited by imagination, and we’ve learned from pockets of brilliance around the world that the best of human endeavor is still ahead of us.”