FDLTCC, northeast Minnesota address sustainable energy ‘from the ground up’Though windmills and solar panels aren’t exactly commonplace in northeastern Minnesota, this area factors heavily into the future of sustainable energy nonetheless.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Though windmills and solar panels aren’t exactly commonplace in northeastern Minnesota, this area factors heavily into the future of sustainable energy nonetheless.
“There are some exciting things going on right here at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College (FDLTCC),” stated Bill Glahn, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce and director of the Office of Energy Security. Glahn was a featured speaker Tuesday during a public forum at FDLTCC on the future of sustainable energy in northeastern Minnesota.
“I think you’re at the ground level of a large and growing industry that will continue to expand over the next several decades,” Glahn told an audience of some 40 students, faculty, industry representatives, consumers and partners from other colleges.
FDLTCC currently offers a certificate program in Clean Energy Technology. The school is also the only organization in the four-state area to affiliate with the Building Performance Institute (BPI Inc.), a national organization that certifies standards for home energy auditors.
FDLTCC has participated in BPI’s certification program since January, resulting in a contract in April with the Minnesota Department of Energy Security to “train the trainers” for the state of Minnesota.
The college now provides both training and certification testing for home energy auditors who are seeking BPI Inc. certification.
FDLTCC is in the process of building a Minnesota BPI network which currently includes 10 additional organizations, including community and technical colleges, the University of Minnesota Extension Service and at least one non-profit organization.
To date, the program has trained some 30 instructors from 10 different Minnesota colleges as well as numerous construction contractors, weatherization technicians and others in related fields.
While some certified energy auditors work as private contractors for energy utility companies, others affiliate with the Low Income Weatherization program, performing diagnostic testing in homes experiencing energy losses.
Glahn praised these types of locally based energy initiatives as working “from the bottom up” in attaining sustainability while at the same time bringing economic benefits to the area.
“There is a huge role for facilities such as Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) and FDLTCC in establishing collaborations and connections to educate new students in the field [of sustainable energy] and retrain those already in mid-career,” Glahn said. “We need a skilled, trained workforce.”
Glahn went on to say that Minnesota has become a hub of renewable energy for the entire Midwest. He pointed out that the state has received some $2 million in federal stimulus money dedicated to energy-related projects, adding that two-thirds of that money is to be targeted toward low-income weatherization initiatives.
“The biggest struggle is to find skilled people to monitor this process,” said Glahn, citing the increasing need for energy auditors, HVAC (Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning) installers, quality assurance managers, roofing technicians and related fields.
Glahn went on to explain that the state government has set policy to encourage investment in a “greener” future by endorsing a Renewable Energy Standard, directing that 25 percent of Minnesota’s total energy should come from renewable sources. Glahn said Minnesota currently ranks second in the nation in reliance on renewable energy sources, chiefly wind, solar, hydro-power and biomass.
Also on hand for Tuesday’s session was Representative Bill Hilty (DFL-8A), who chairs the House Energy Committee. He, too, endorsed the efforts of the local college and its affiliates and encouraged community-based efforts to develop “green” energy sources as part of the overall strategy to become sustainable and independent.
“The really significant thing is that we are at a transition point away from fossil fuels,” said Hilty, “and this is an opportunity to get in on an industry that will continue to develop because there is no other choice.”
Hilty went on to discuss how the global economy is based on cheap energy, and yet the remaining petroleum and natural gas resources in the United States are increasingly more difficult to access and expensive to deliver.
“Energy has become the ultimate currency,” said Hilty. “We can’t afford to buy our way out of an energy shortage…..The whole field of alternative energy will become more and more important. It’s a good time to be involved in the development of these resources.”
Audience member Mike Cummins, a “green” building owner/contractor, pointed out that the cost per kilowatt of alternative energies is currently higher than other sources and added that many are not willing to pay the price, even if alternative energy sources are more sustainable.
“How do we balance out the two?” he asked.
Hilty noted that current costs of alternative energy remain higher at this point primarily due to the transmission upgrades necessary as alternative energy sites develop, but he said once those upgrades are in place, the cost of sources such as wind energy won’t go up.
Though both Hilty and Glahn admitted the lion’s share of the Minnesota’s current wind and solar industries are currently in the southern third of the state, the north has the edge when it comes to biomass production because of its forestlands. They added that weatherization programs, which are in place throughout the state, are also an essential part of energy conservation and sustainability.
A student in the audience who said he is about to graduate asked the two men where the jobs are in the field of renewable energy. Glahn referred him to the website iseek.org, a joint venture of MnSCU and the State Department of Career Education and Job Resources, which lists the top 20 occupations having vacancies in the area of “green” energy.
Another piece of general advice he gave to students considering a career in the field of sustainable energy – “Math, math, math!” he said, “This is a very technical industry.”