Students line up for NMCC’s classes for wind-power technicians

By Ramona du Houx- January 3rd, 2010 

NMCC students (from left) Neil Berry and Eric Harvey take in the view at the top of the wind tower on the UMaine Presque Isle campus. As part of their safety training, all wind-power students must complete a climb test on the 225 foot tower, including standing on top of it.
NMCC students (from left) Neil Berry and Eric Harvey take in the view at the top of the wind tower on the UMaine Presque Isle campus. As part of their safety training, all wind-power students must complete a climb test on the 225 foot tower, including standing on top of it.
In August of 2009 Northern Maine Community College (NMCC) in Presque Isle launched Maine’s first associate degree program geared toward training wind-power technicians.

The program instructs students in how to operate, maintain, and repair wind-turbine generators.

Officials from NMCC said they were inspired to create the program because of a growing interest in wind power and the school’s proximity to the state’s first wind farm, Mars Hill, just fourteen miles down the road.

The College initially got things started by offering a wind-power theories course during the spring 2008 semester. The course had to be expanded to include two additional divisions because the interest was so great, with 42 students signing up for the class.

That enthusiasm by prospective students was replicated in August, when the college first offered its associate degree program. NMCC had to double the capacity of the entering class from 18, which is typical of most trade programs, to 36, by running multiple sections of the classes. More than 50 qualified prospective students applied for the available slots.

“We’re off to a strong start. Thanks to the cooperation of local industry as well as community partners, all of the safety components have been done, including an initial climb of 225 feet, utilizing the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s wind turbine,” said NMCC President Timothy Crowley.

One of those community partners is Larkin Enterprises, Inc., an international corporation that offers field engineering, maintenance, commissioning, and supervision in the energy industry. The company provided paid windmill site internships for NMCC students.

NMCC students Parker Brown of Mapleton, Brian Kingsbury of Houlton, and David Lown of Fort Fairfield interned for Larkin on the TransCanada-Kibby Mountain Wind Project in Western Maine over the summer. The three worked hands-on, completing various tasks, including tower cable pulling, tower lighting, and developing strategies to improve project workflow.

“Working at the Kibby Mountain project gave NMCC students real-world experience with daily activities during construction of a wind park,” said Wayne Kilcollins the lead instructor for the program. Before joining NMCC, Wayne worked as a wind technician for General Electric Wind Energy, the firm responsible for the maintenance and engineering at the wind farm operated by First Wind on Mars Hill Mountain.

Kilcollins was a member of the Maine delegation that traveled to Spain and Germany with Governor Baldacci as part of his Energy Trade Mission.

After completing a 225 foot wind-tower climb, NMCC student Sawyer Gloden is introduced to the nacelle, the box-like structure at the top of the wind tower
After completing a 225 foot wind-tower climb, NMCC student Sawyer Gloden is introduced to the nacelle, the box-like structure at the top of the wind tower

“I had the opportunity to talk to some of the manufacturers and schools there, which provided great insights of European industry expectations of students. I have been part of an education working group, developing a basic skill set for wind technicians for the American Wind Energy Association, so that we can move toward a standardized national exam for certification of technicians in this field,” said Kilcollins. “The European group has similar standards already in place. I plan to adopt the insights I gained during this trip, as well as from my work with the AWEA, into our NMCC program, so that our students can meet base expectations. We need to be sure that our curriculum matches what the industry here and abroad wants.”

Farmers in the county are looking towards developing a co-op wind farm, which would require trained personnel to maintain. Estimates indicate Aroostook County has the potential to realize at least 80 new, long-term, highly skilled, high-wage technical positions in operation and maintenance for wind farms between 2009 and 2012.

As wind farms are being developed in Washington County, Franklin County, Western Maine, and in Canada’s Atlantic provinces, more windmill technicians will be needed. A two-year technical degree is the current, desired credential for these positions.

“The demand will continue to grow, but unfortunately we only have so many student slots that can be filled. Although we were able to double our capacity for this first entering class to meet the high demand, we cannot maintain that level as we move forward, due to constraints in lab space, instructor availability and, ultimately, budget,” said Kilcollins. “Beginning in the upcoming academic year, we will be limited to 18 new students in each incoming class.”

Crowley concluded that, “Interest continues to be strong in the program, and our challenge will now be to find the resources to support the training for the workforce for this industry. We’re optimistic about the future of the program and the industry in Aroostook County, and the state of Maine.”