RET program transforms to ‘EM-Tech’

July 26, 2017

If you drive east from The Dalles, it doesn’t take long before you start seeing wind turbines dotting the landscape. On the bluffs overlooking the John Day Dam, just outside the borders of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, these white giants rise 300 feet toward the clouds, their sleek blades cutting gracefully through the air as they rotate in strong Gorge winds.

When it began in 2007, CGCC’s Renewable Energy Technology program was the first community college training program for technicians on the West Coast. Since then, it has prepared hundreds of wind turbine technicians to install and service these lofty machines.

There are three major phases to many wind farms: construction, initial “warranty” operation by the farm’s developer, and post-warranty operations by companies specializing in long-term maintenance. CGCC graduates find employment in all three areas.
The training program’s early years coincided with a tremendous construction boom in our region, as companies such as GE, Iberdrola, Suzlon, Vestas and Siemans installed thousands of turbines across Sherman, Klickitat and Gilliam counties. Today, there’s less construction in our region but a continuing demand for operational technicians, even as wind development continues at breakneck speed elsewhere in the world. CGCC graduates emerge with the skills needed regardless of locale, including large off-shore installations.

The local renewables industry is evolving to include advanced manufacturing, unmanned aerial systems, and instrumentation and process control. In response, CGCC is revamping its Renewable Energy Technology degree to meet those changes. The name of the program is changing, too, from Renewable Energy Technology, or RET, to Electro-Mechanical Technology, or EM-Tech (pronounced M-tech for short). Instructor James Pytel says the shift is “not so much of a change in focus but rather a redesign to fit the regional needs and remain flexible.”

“Our desired outcome is to offer foundational technical skills with an array of specialized options,” Pytel explained.

Curricular adjustments mean the program no longer focuses on wind energy but instead starts with a core set of classes applicable to a variety of engineering technician fields, and then allows students to select a set of electives that specialize in specific subsets. The core skill set gives students a good foundation in several different areas of technology: electronics, mechanics, hydraulics/pneumatics, motors, motor control, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), power electronics and industrial safety. The elective concentrations include renewable generation by solar, hydro, or wind power, electrical transmission, unmanned aircraft, advanced manufacturing, and instrumentation and process control (systems engineering). All enrollees will complete the core skill set, and may choose whichever electives fit their individual needs.

Many engineering fields use more than one of the core skills, making the program align more readily with the Bachelor of Science in Engineering degrees offered at four-year colleges and universities. In addition to a current agreement with Oregon Institute of Technology, CGCC has forged a new partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. These “articulation” agreements make it easier for a CGCC graduate to transfer to a four-year school and enter the engineering major without having to backtrack and take extra lower-division (100 and 200 level) coursework. While not all students choose to go on to a Bachelors’ in Engineering, Pytel says he sees it as an increasing trend.

Another trend Pytel observes is the changing role of renewable energy in society. Right now, most of the energy generated by wind turbines is used for homes and businesses. In the future, Pytel thinks the transportation industry may become renewable energy’s biggest consumer. “Electric cars will radically change our country's electrical needs. I anticipate a massive boom in renewable energy production, energy storage, and transmission in the very near future,” he said. “Regarding some of the other industries targeted by the electromechanical technology program, these career fields will become increasingly reliant on highly trained technicians.”

CGCC believes training those technicians is a perfect way to retool the existing program. To implement these changes, Pytel received a small grant from the National Science Foundation to develop online content for core subjects (see “CGCC Professor Receives NSF Grant” for details). Pytel and his colleague Tom Lieurance chose to make the changes now rather than wait, lest the program’s earlier curriculum become obsolete. “Industrial wind power is no longer the prime regional employer,” Pytel said. “The program needs to evolve to meet demands of numerous regional employers, yet remain committed to core competencies valued by all industries.”

Change is in the wind.