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USA: Wind power propels new degree programs

Published at: Dec 11, 2011
source: Houston Chronicle
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Universities in the state of Texas are beginning to offer new degrees and certificates in the area of wind energy engineering.

When 32-year-old Antonio Lara enrolled at Texas Tech University in 2010 as an undergraduate, he was looking for a growth field with opportunities in Texas and around the world.

Lara was one of the first students on board for the university's undergraduate program in wind energy, which officially started this fall.

"I knew it was a growing industry," Lara said. "It feels good to know that you are doing something that offsets the negative effects of the other sources that we get electricity from."

Texas Tech is one of several schools in the state expanding degree programs to meet the growing demand for wind energy professionals.

For several years, it has been the only university in the United States to offer a doctorate in wind science, through its civil engineering school. In 2007, the school expanded it into a multidisciplinary doctoral degree program in wind science and engineering.

In 2010, the university added a multidisciplinary undergraduate program in wind and engineering. In this program, students learn about energy generation and other potential benefits from wind power. They also study solutions to its problems, such as vulnerability of turbines to tornados and hurricanes.

The university expects to have 100 undergraduates majoring in the program within two years, said Andrew Swift, former director of the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech, which established the doctoral program.

Swift now works with the Texas Wind Energy Institute, a partnership of Texas Tech and the Sweetwater-based Texas State Technical College, which is developing and running undergraduate and two-year technical training programs.

The interest in wind-related education is at least partially due to the projected demand for wind industry professionals. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that there are 75,000 direct and indirect jobs in wind energy. Potential job growth in the field seems likely, given the Department of Energy's push for 20 percent of U.S. electricity to be wind-generated by 2030.

Entry-level training for wind technicians also is in demand, said Keith Plantier, program director for Texas State Technical College.

The school enrolls about 50 new students each semester for its two-year program, which trains workers to operate and maintain wind farms - often working on turbines up to 350 feet above the ground.

"Even during the lean times, we were still able to place our technicians," Plantier said. "There are more job opportunities than I have technicians to put out there. We have a 100 percent placement rate."

Program in Houston

A program operated by the Michigan Institute of Aviation Technology on the University of Houston campus also offers non-degree courses including wind technician training. Fifteen students have graduated from the program this fall.

Other universities are offering concentrations and certificates in wind energy while they determine whether to have a full program.

West Texas A&M started an optional emphasis on renewable energy last semester within its engineering school and drew more than 70 students to its classes on wind and solar power, said Ken Starcher, associate director of the university's Alternative Energy Institute.

The University of Texas at Austin has announced plans for a renewable energy portfolio program next spring. Officials will use it to assess demand for further offerings, said Chip Groat, associate director of the Energy Institute at UT.

"There are not any new courses," Groat said. "What will come out of this will be to decide whether people are demanding courses in this area."

Wind collaboration

A consortium of universities, corporations and other institutions formed the Wind Alliance to foster collaboration on research into wind energy. Its members include the University of Houston, Rice University and Texas Southern University.

Spokesman Ray Cline said that in addition to research, the consortium plans to move into workforce education and training.

Texas A&M recently established a Wind Energy Center, whose charter is to put together a curriculum in wind energy engineering, its director, John Pappas, said. While the program will initially only offer a certificate, it is being designed to grow into a full-fledged undergraduate and graduate program.

Energy companies focused on wind, such as Vestas Wind Systems, have been working with Texas universities to develop their programs. Denmark-based Vestas established its research branch in Houston in 2007 and is looking to these students for future recruitment.

"One of the key reasons we placed our North American research headquarters in Houston is the opportunity to collaborate with leading universities to develop new technologies and talent," said Pratima Rangarajan, senior vice president of Global Research and Innovation at Vestas.

Opportunity in mind

Potential opportunities at Vestas and other energy companies come as good news for Lara, who has his wife and 2-year-old daughter in mind as he considers his future.

"Now that I have a daughter, I am trying to focus on my education so that I can compete in a struggling economy," said Lara, who spent years in the restaurant industry before returning to school. "I believe that the wind energy route is going to achieve that for me. I am definitely confident that I will be able to get a job."

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