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Wind Turbines Generate Interest in Energy Careers

November 7, 2008

Photo of two adults and five kids outside who are working together to spin a fan-shaped rotor onto a pole.

Jerome Middle School students spin the rotor assembly onto the shaft of their wind turbine.
Courtesy of Stephanie Lively, Boise State University

To glimpse America's renewable energy future, drop in on the middle school in tiny Jerome, Idaho.

On November 12, teenagers in this farming community in south-central Idaho will flip the switch on a small wind turbine prominently installed on the lawn next to their school's sign — with help from NREL's Wind for Schools program and the Wind Application Center at Boise State University.

Clean electricity isn't all that's being generated by the Skystream 3.7 turbine. For program managers, the higher priority is the wind energy curriculum they provide the school, and the hope that it will inspire students in Jerome to pursue renewable energy careers.

"The turbines will generate only a fraction of the electricity that the school uses," said NREL senior scientist Ian Baring-Gould, who coordinates the Wind for Schools program.

"But that stick in the ground introduces wind power to the community and shows students how they can help the nation take charge of its energy future," he said, "We want to get them excited about renewable energy, and especially wind power."

Six States Participating

Photo of a wind turbine being hoisted upright by a crane while several people watch. Sign in the foreground reads Jerome Middle School.

Volunteers from H&H Utility Contractors, Inc., hoist a Skystream 3.7 wind turbine into place at the Jerome, Idaho, Middle School as part of NREL's Wind for Schools program.
Courtesy of Stephanie Lively, Boise State University

In addition to Jerome Middle School, school districts in Montana and South Dakota also have erected small wind turbines this fall with support from the Wind for Schools program, which is sponsored by the lab and Wind Powering America, an activity under the Wind and Hydropower Technologies Program of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Several Nebraska school districts also have joined the program and are planning their wind turbine projects.

They join rural schools in Colorado and Kansas in the program that have been generating their own electricity from wind since 2006.

Nationwide, more than 80 schools in 30 states are operating wind turbines — some of which are part of larger commercial wind farms.

Schools in Spirit Lake, Iowa, for example, have been generating wind electricity since 1993, and now offset their energy bills by more than $140,000 annually.

In contrast, the smaller Skystream turbines used in the Wind for Schools project are designed for residential and small business use. They aren't meant to generate green revenue for financially challenged districts or displace power consumed annually by a typical school.

These neighborhood-friendly turbines are meant to educate and inspire students, Baring-Gould said.

Developing a Wind Energy Workforce

NREL, state officials, a Wind Application Center and local facilitators help select school sites with promising wind resources, as well as providing data monitoring systems, classroom materials and teacher training. But the program does not purchase and install turbine hardware.

The $10,000 wind energy kit — discounted for schools — includes the Skystream unit, a tower; disconnect boxes at the base of the turbine and at the school, and an interconnection to the school's electrical system.

Districts pay for the hardware with a combination of their own funds, state grants and private donations, facilitated by the program. Local utilities often donate installation equipment and labor.

Equally important, says Baring-Gould, is the program's effort in universities to develop the workforce the wind industry will need.

In each of the six participating states, Wind for Schools has created a Wind Application Center within an engineering program. Staffed by a professor and students, these centers provide local school districts with program coordination and technical assistance, learning about wind energy and how to implement wind projects as they work with local schools. They also provide wind energy information for lawmakers, regulators, businesses and residential users.

The centers are introducing wind energy curriculum at their universities in order to develop professional wind engineers and systems analysts.

For the U.S. to generate 20 percent of its electricity by wind power by 2030, utilities, manufacturers and communities will need hundreds of additional wind power professionals every year to design, install and operate commercial wind energy systems.

"Right now, there is no degree at U.S. engineering schools on wind energy," Baring-Gould said. "Even if we go to just 10 percent wind energy, we are going to need that kind of expertise, and this program is one step in that process."

Learn more about wind energy research at NREL.