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LRSC Wind Energy students enjoy working in live lab

By   Anna Burleson
12/01/2014

Published in the Grand Forks Herald October 22, 2014. Written by Anna Burleson for Forum Communications

With the only wind energy technician program in the state, instructor Jay Johnson and his students are some of the few who experience the thrill of working on machinery as it sways slightly in the breeze about 24 stories high.

North Dakota has the potential to produce 770,000 megawatts through wind energy turbines, which is more capacity than all the fossil-fueled power plants in the United States combined, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The National Resource Defense Council says the state currently produces enough wind power to fuel the equivalent of 420,000 homes and North Dakota ranks 9th in the nation for wind energy development. The wind tech students at LRSC are helping fuel the industry’s growth.

Because they all spend entire days together, there’s a sense of camaraderie in the group.

"This year’s class is the strongest class we’ve ever had,” Johnson said. “No lie. Right down the line, they’re really good. They’re going to make great wind techs.”

All fairly seasoned climbers at this point, Johnson’s students have varied paths that brought them to the decision to make a living scaling the enormous turbines.

Becker, 19, transferred into the program from UND while Lordson, 26, decided to join because he couldn’t stand holding an office job.

“I’m a certified medical administrative assistant, but I can’t sit behind a desk,” Lordson said.

A booming industry
The school’s 1.6 megawatt turbine took about a year to build and became commercially operational in February 2013.
LRSC has had a wind energy tech program in existence since 2009, spokeswoman Erin Wood said.

“The tower really a fantastic thing for the program,” Johnson said. “It’s like trying to have a flight school without an airplane — you’ve got to have it.”

The $7.2 million project also included a new high efficiency boiler and was partly funded by a $2.6 million legislative appropriation. The rest of structure was financed by ESG Honeywell, a national energy technology manufacturer.

Standing out in sharp contrast to the flat prairie three miles north and about one mile west of campus on N.D. Highway 20, the turbine produces most of the electricity the college uses.
College President Doug Darling said the excess electricity made by the tower is sold to Otter Tail Power Company, based in Fergus Falls, Minn.

“It’s all because of partnerships like that with Otter Tail and others in the industry,” he said. “Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

While LRSC does use some power from Otter Tail, the power it sells back from the turbine outpaces what is used. Therefore, Darling said he gets a check for about $10,000 each month, which goes toward paying off the remainder of the tab for the turbine along with what used to be budgeted for utilities.

In the year and a half the tower has been operational, Darling said it is already starting to pay itself off. The tower should be paid off in about 15 years.

Inside the turbine
Johnson said the most important aspect of the wind energy tech program is safety.

“If you follow the safety protocol, you’re going to be OK,” Johnson said as he deftly handled the heavy climbing harness. “We’re training people to work in the utility industry. There’s definitely risk in the job. There’s hazard, there’s a probability that hazard is going to hurt you, but utilities are really safe jobs because even if there are hazards, the safety protocols are so well established and they take them so seriously that the number of incidents is really low.”

The program is similar in content to mechanical engineering but has an emphasis on a wind energy skill set.

The students learn how to properly and safely scale the three-tiered ladder system inside the hollow stem of the tower, how to use the electronic and mechanical aspects of the machinery inside the capsule-like room on top.

Johnson said he has never had a student leave because they couldn’t deal with the physical requirement of climbing.

“Once you’re inside it and you’re up on top, it’s so big and heavy it feels like you’re standing here in a building on the ground,” Johnson said. “The mass of it creates a stability people don’t realize it would be like.”

On top of the world
This is the first year Johnson has taught in an academy style where his group of about 10 students, all men, spends the entire day moving from one activity to another.

Johnson took about 10 classes and broke them down by the hours it takes to learn each task. He keeps track of all his students have accomplished throughout the semester, and after one year, students are awarded a certificate.

After two years, they earn their degree as a wind energy tech and can go on to make more than $50,000 annually.

Students complete a variety of tasks in the turbine, all of which are practiced in the ground facility first.

The large utility area and two classrooms are filled with equipment, most of which was donated to the school for students to practice on.

Last week, Ruppell, Becker and Lordson scaled the tower to replace an oil filter, which exists inside the tower’s topmost space, which is about the size of a bedroom.

Afterward, as the group climbed out of a ceiling hatch and onto the very top of the turbine, the three stopped to take in the scenery.

“Yeah, it’s kind of scary, but the view is pretty amazing,” Lordson said.