University of Wisconsin Professor Leads Proactive Efforts in Wind Energy Education and Workforce Development
Upon the creation of one of the U.S.’s biggest new wind farms in Oregon, every year it seems there are more and more projects and breakthroughs in the wind energy industry. In this presidential election year, in spite of all the politicking over the government’s role in funding companies building wind turbines, wind energy is very much at the forefront of green energy and will continue to progress.
As is crucial to any new or alternative technology, education and training ensure that the future of wind energy technology, construction and operation is solid and sustainable. Without thousands of trained engineers and designers and electrical and geotechnical workers for wind site development, design and construction, there simply won’t be enough skilled workers to carry out future growth.
That’s where the Department of Energy and an enterprising professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are stepping in to fill the void. Back in July 2010, UW-Madison was one of 16 schools and projects given a wind workforce development grant, with its mission to develop a series of continuing education short courses focused on civil design and construction for wind energy power plants.
The grants were given as part of the DoE’s “20% Wind Energy by 2030″ funding opportunity announcement.
Among the projects and schools receiving grants were Penn State University, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Arizona State University, the University of Wyoming and Texas State Technical College.
The UW-Madison grant, $199,000 over two years, led Dr. James Tinjum, a civil engineering professor, to create a wide-ranging curriculum that could become a model for other schools .
Tinjum has created a two-tiered approach to wind workforce education and development. He first helped develop a three-day short course for professionals and students, welcoming them to come into UW-Madison and learn from guest lecturers from industry. Tinjum also came up with a more conventional full-semester course for UW-Madison undergraduates on wind energy site design and construction — which, he says, has become the most popular engineering class on campus.
“This is the first generation of students who want to do something in sustainability and the environment, and they want to do something significant for sustainable energy,” Tinjum tells me for Green & Clean. “A large number of students are getting into engineering because they want to make a difference and work in renewable energy. There’s a new philosophy among them, and we’re trying to give them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.”
Tinjum wasn’t a wind power expert by any means when he started down the wind energy education path. In 2008, he directed a short course on foundation engineering and design for working professionals, and “the comments I got back from that (course),” he says, “were that this was great, but we’d like to understand how to design wind turbines, because not many people know how to do that. So I began looking into that and how I could design courses to meet that interest.”
Tinjum’s short courses are thorough and cover all bases, thanks to his recruitment of professionals in the field. This year’s course, held in late September with a $1,200 tuition per student, featured three major topics: foundation and tower system design, wind energy/civil balance of plant design and wind energy/electrical balance of plant design.
The civil balance of plant design umbrella covers issues like maintaining equilibrium. For example, Tinjun says that “we’re building wind turbines on farm fields in Iowa, but we’re driving the largest cranes in the world to do it.”
The wind energy/electrical balance of plant design topic deals with stability of electricity and how to get that electricity from the wind farm to regional grids in a stable, harmonious manner.
Within those three topics, classes include “The Geotechnical and site civil investigation,” “Tower/Turbine Structural Load Documents and Forces” and other specific subtopics. The classes are led by professionals in the field, like Bill Gardner, an estimator at the Boldt Co. in Appleton, Wis.; Jennifer Smith, a mechanical engineer at Vestas Technology in Louisville, Colo.; and Shelton Stringer, a geologist and president of Earth Systems Global Inc. in Bermuda Dunes, Calif.
In Tinjum’s three-credit full-semester course, he teaches the science and mechanics of wind energy, including turbine basics, wind resource assessment and energy production, as well as design aspects such as foundation systems, environmental review and structural tower analysis, along with site preparation and lift calculations.
Sam Jorgensen was a student in Tinjum’s courses and this year was, himself, an instructor for the short course. He currently works for renewable energy contractor RMT Inc., which buys and builds wind and solar farms.
“It was a great overview to a lot of engineering and design topics I hadn’t been exposed to,” Jorgensen says. “It gives you a perspective on the entire wind energy engineering side. But the best part of it was there were real-life design examples, and it was very applicable to real-life experiences I was having in the workplace.”
Jacqui German is a junior at UW-Madison who took the short course last year.
“Every couple of hours there was an expert telling us about a whole different side of wind energy, so we got examples of everything we could encounter when we get (jobs) in the field,” German says. “It was three days, but I was so excited about it I wish it could’ve been for a week.”
While the UW-Madison curriculum seems to be a success, for future sustainability of the knowledge and technological base to happen, wind energy education needs to happen on a much larger scale. Tinjum recommends schools that are interested in developing courses tap into existing professionals in the field.
“I’m the lone wolf in how I teach this course in this way, but I’m in talks with a group in India, and [another] in Connecticut, and I’m talking to a colleague in Turkey, and they’re all interested in teaching the way we’re doing it here,” Tinjum says. “What schools really also need to do is find educators who are interested in the subject and really do their homework and design curriculum that will prepare [students] for real-world jobs in wind energy.”
Despite skepticism from some, Tinjum says he sees nothing but a bright future for wind energy.
“Wind energy is the renewable energy success story; we’ve gone from 0.1 percent to 3.84 percent of U.S. electricity, and that penetration is even higher in Spain, Germany, China, Denmark,” Tinjum says. “With continued support of renewable standards, there’s no reason why we can’t get to 15 to 20 percent electricity from wind. The technology is here; we need political will and engineers and students who are willing to do this.”