Where Do I Start? Getting a Renewable Energy Education

I am interested in getting into the field of Renewable Energy. I was just medically retired out of the Army and was wondering…what schooling (colleges, universities, technical schools) do you suggest me attending? I am confused as how to get into this field. – Joshua Magura, Indiana

First of all, let me start by saying that it’s wonderful to hear you’re interested in getting into the renewable energy industry, particularly because the need for enthusiastic and talented people has never been greater—and that’s good news for you.

To answer the need for skilled people, educational institutions are developing renewables programs, often with the help of wind power companies, and new programs are being announced all the time. Such opportunities usually are located in regions of the country where wind energy is creating jobs, and the demand for workers is highest. One recent example: in February, FPL Energy, which happens to own the most wind energy facilities in the U.S., formed a partnership with Texas State Technical College West Texas (TSTC West Texas) to educate and train students in wind turbine technology.

As part of the partnership, FPL Energy said it would assist TSTC West Texas with its curriculum by offering subject matter experts and faculty adjuncts, as well as allowing opportunities for participants to interact with the company’s wind experts on and off campus. The company also said it would provide paid internships within FPL Energy wind operations and work with the college to secure the equipment and other resources necessary for laboratory facilities.

Located in Sweetwater, a hotbed of wind energy activity, TSTC West Texas is well-situated strategically for FPL Energy’s operations. The company has facilities in the area-most notably, the 735-MW Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, the largest wind farm in the world. The college currently offers a two-year degree developed by TSTC faculty in collaboration with program advisory group members of the wind industry including FPL Energy.

So even if you don’t live in that area, there’s a message here for you: if you’re interested in working in the industry, it may not only be a good idea to look for a job in areas where wind power facilities are going up, you may want to consider these areas if you’re seeking out educational opportunities as well.

Other institutions that have recently put together wind and renewable energy programs of various levels, ranging from two-year electrical apprenticeships to graduate degrees, include Colorado State University, Illinois State University, Minnesota West Community and Technical College, St. Francis University in Pennsylvania, Columbia Gorge Community College in Oregon, and Lakeshore Technical College in Wisconsin.

Individual wind energy facilities also are training workers right on site to keep up with demand. Tower Tech Systems’ wind tower facility in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, is opening a welding training school this year in preparation for a planned production ramp-up from its current output of 2 to 4 towers per week to 8 per week in 2008.

As for looking for actual positions, AWEA will be launching its new career center web site in the very near future. Once the job board is up and running, you can go to www.awea.org to view openings from companies within the industry. RenewableEnergyAccess.com, along with a range of other renewable energy publications and organizations, also feature national and international job boards on their websites.

Finally, as any employment expert will tell you, one of the best ways to learn about an industry and land the job you want is through networking. The WINDPOWER 2007 Conference & Exhibition, taking place in Los Angeles, California, June 3-6, will boast an exhibit floor of over 400 companies and organizations operating in the wind energy industry.

Stopping by their booths just to chat is a priceless learning experience for the industry veteran and new entrant alike. Educational sessions at this, and other renewable energy conferences throughout the year, also provide the opportunity to learn about the industry as well as rub shoulders with other knowledgeable attendees.

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Carl is Editor & Publications Manager at the American Wind Energy Association, where has worked since 2006. At AWEA he oversees AWEA's online and print publications including the Wind Energy Weekly, Windpower Update, and other products. He has worked as a journalist in the energy industry as a staff writer for Public Utilities Fortnightly magazine and in the association sector as senior editor at Association Management magazine. He also has covered the home-building industry, where his areas of greatest interest were sustainable development and "smart growth," and has written articles for numerous other publications as a freelance writer. Carl received his B.A. from James Madison University and spent some time in New Orleans teaching as well as working with homeless youth.

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