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Nebraska renewable energy training programs struggle to recruit students amid national worker shortage

Energy Tech 4
Posted at 4:38 PM, May 27, 2023

Every Tuesday and Thursday in the fall, Taylor Schneider and his students start class by gathering their equipment and stretching. The 15 minutes of stretching is essential for their trips up a 400-foot wind turbine.

These climbs up the turbine are part of Central Community College’s effort to lessen the shortage of workers in the renewable energy industry. The college offers wind, solar energy and battery storage accreditation — a rare combination that Schneider said has allowed him to teach students from rural Nebraska, surrounding states and other countries.

The problem for Schneider, though, is he hasn’t had enough of those students. It’s a struggle shared by Nebraska’s other community-college based renewable energy training program at Northeast Community College.

The woes coincide with a national labor shortage in the renewable energy sector, which is juiced for growth in the coming years. One advocacy organization predicts that recent federal legislation will create more than half a million “clean energy jobs” in the U.S. during the next decade.

Despite the promise of opportunity, Schneider, a former wind technician, has seen about 15 students graduate from the program over the last four years, about ⅓ the number of graduates the program was designed to produce during that time.

About 130 miles away from Central’s campus in Hastings, Northeast Community College has had a wind energy program since 2009.

On average, it sees about 10 students a year – half of what the program is designed to accommodate. In recent years, only four to six students graduate from the program each year. The only time the program was full was in its first year, according to John Liewer, an instructor at Northeast.

Like Schneider, Liewer faults a lack of awareness for Northeast’s low numbers in its wind program.

“In the wind industry, one of our biggest challenges is finding people that know about it,” Liewer said.

“A lot of people drive by wind turbines and never think that there’s a full-time job in that.”

Central currently offers three different accreditations, though Schneider worries about what the low numbers could mean for the program’s future.

“Being in the middle of Nebraska, it’s difficult for students to know that we have a program that teaches all three,” he said.

The program is split up by semester – wind instruction in the fall and solar and battery storage in the spring. During the fall, students learn about wind turbine fundamentals such as tower components, climbing techniques and more.

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Taylor Schneider, energy technology instructor at Central Community College, helps students work on a wind turbine motherboard. Central is one of two Nebraska community colleges with a renewable energy accreditation program. However, unlike the other program, Central offers accreditation in three different areas of renewables: wind, solar and battery storage. Courtesy of Central Community College

The turbine that students train on — built in partnership with Bluestem Energy Solutions, Hastings Utilities and Central — also serves as the main source of energy for the entire campus.

In the spring students learn how to install residential and commercial solar arrays.

For some of Schneider’s students, being a part of this program means being a part of the future.

“It’s an emerging technology that needs to be learned and expanded through the U.S., because we’re in times where our environment is being harmed by carbon emissions and we need a balance,” first-year student Wut-nuer Gatnoor said.

Scheider has tried to drum up additional interest in the program the past four years by attending conventions in and out of Nebraska.

Through a partnership with Grand Island Public Schools’ career pathway program, the college hopes to see more students in the following years, said Alison Feeney, Central’s associate dean of skilled technology.

Schneider said funding makes it difficult to have suitable equipment throughout the entire academic year. For example, unlike the fall semester when students work on the turbine, the spring semester lacks hands-on experience for battery storage, he said.

“I came to this school because of the opportunities I believed I would have in a program like this, but it hasn't played out that way,” first-year student Evan Schumm said.

The struggle to keep up with the rapidly growing industry is not unique to Nebraska’s programs.

Iowa Lakes Community College once boasted being the only program in the nation to teach wind energy. The college’s recruitment efforts were minimal.

“Back then it was easy for us, anybody who wanted to learn wind had to come here,” said Michael Gengler, instructor for the program.

Gengler, who graduated from the program in 2008, recalls graduating in a class size of about 100 students. Nearly 15 years later, enrollment numbers have decreased significantly.

Prior to COVID-19, Gengler said the program graduated about 60 students every year. This year, its graduating class is about 20 students. Recruitment efforts, largely made up of visiting with high school students, took a hit during the pandemic.

“Talking to students and getting them to your facilities really makes the difference,” Gengler said. “It’s not enough to let them know we exist, they’ve also got to see it on their own.”

Schneider said scholarships from big power companies could help Central’s program, and in turn produce future employees.

Energy Tech 3
Students in the Central Community College Energy Technology Program inspect solar panels on campus alongside instructor Taylor Schneider. The program launched in 2019. Since then it has graduated about 15 students, roughly ⅓ of the amount the program was designed to graduate during that same period. Courtesy of Central Community College

Bluestem Energy Solutions, the company that helped Central build its Hastings wind turbine, offers a scholarship for students interested in the renewable energy industry. However, the scholarship is exclusively for Northeast students.

Similarly, Nebraska Public Power District is working to recruit students into renewable programs, though it hasn’t worked directly with Central.

Those recruitment efforts, according to Grant Otten of NPPD, are focused around Northeast and Mitchell Technical College in South Dakota due to their proximity to the utility’s Ainsworth wind energy facility.

NPPD, which provides electric power to more than half a million Nebraskans, has recruited most of its renewable energy technician interns from these two institutions.

NPPD also provides an energy education program for elementary and high schools and colleges to educate students on career opportunities in the energy field, including jobs in renewable energy – a sector poised for growth.

Projections by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2022 identified wind turbine technician as the second fastest growing occupation over the next decade with a growth rate of 44%. Solar panel installers also made it in the top 20 professions for projected growth with a rate of 27%.

The BLS, in a separate report, noted that the high growth rate in certain renewable energy jobs is owed to the fact that relatively few people work in those occupations now. For example, BLS said the number of wind turbine technicians in 2021 totaled 11,100, meaning the 44% growth rate amounts to 4,900 jobs over the next decade.

Otten with NPPD noted that wind and solar generation facilities, even at the utility scale size, do not employ a large number of people. The utility’s 60-megawatt Ainsworth wind facility has 36 wind turbines and only requires four employees to operate and maintain.

But the renewable energy industry already is experiencing a boost from the federal Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Joe Biden in August. Despite its title, the legislation largely contained provisions intended to address climate change.

American Clean Power, an organization that advocates on behalf of renewable energy companies, estimated that the legislation will create 550,000 new clean energy jobs in the coming decade.

The White House, in a fact sheet, said the act will build on the 18,822 Nebraska workers already employed in clean energy jobs and boost the pay for some of those jobs. “The Inflation Reduction Act will expand these opportunities, bringing an estimated $24.5 billion of investment in large-scale clean power generation and storage to Nebraska between now and 2030.”

However, job growth could be slowed by opposition.

Josh Moenning, director of New Power Nebraska, which promotes the development of renewable energy in Nebraska, said there’s still substantial opposition to the development of renewable energy in the state.

Moenning has seen opposition in a number of forms in certain areas of the state, while seeing other areas embrace renewable energy. He believes much of the hesitancy for development comes from misinformation about renewable energy.

“I’ve always encouraged people who have questions or concerns to visit a wind farm. I think that would solve some opposition,” Moenning said.

Nebraska isn’t without renewable energy. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that nearly 30% of Nebraska's net energy generation came from renewables in 2021, mostly from wind.

Last year, Norfolk built the biggest solar facility in the state, an 8.5 megawatt project tied to a battery storage system. Moenning, Norfolk’s mayor, said that residents participating in the project save an average of $15 a month on their energy bill.

With Nebraska among the top states in the nation for wind power potential, Moenning said further development and investment in renewable energy education by these big companies will continue as opposition lessens.

Despite low enrollment in recent years, Liewer at Northeast Community College is optimistic about the future.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good leadership that believes in it (the program) enough,” he said, “and they know it’s a matter of time before it’s mainstream.”

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