Regional wind energy conference garners interest

By Kathleen Davis
Senior editor
Utility Automation & Engineering T&D magazine and Electric Light and Power magazine

The wind industry is hot. It’s popular — perhaps more popular than positively polled President Obama or the newly elected American Idol. It’s the buzz of both energy-related and mainstream media; it’s the source of great press about mandates, tax credits and other goodies that the government might bring to the table. It’s the subject of bestselling books and well-attended conferences.

One of those well-attended conferences occurred in the heat of the summer in the middle of the windy plains. According to planners, nearly 500 people gathered in Norman, Oklahoma for the Oklahoma Wind Commerce conference June 23-24.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the numbers,” stated April Murelio, a marketing communications specialist for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. “We expected, initially, about half this many people.”

The Oklahoma Department of Commerce sponsored the conference, having decided that wind is one of the industries that Oklahoma is built for. Given that the state is in the midst of tornado alley, the idea that the fuel for this industry is readily available locally is certainly a given. So, the conference focused on other areas that can sweeten the pot beyond an available fuel source: pushing for tax incentives, creating a smoothly operating supply chain and offering well-trained employees for the picking.

A Good Employee: Worth his Weight in Turbines
Wednesday’s conference scheduled featured a session specifically about building the best employees. Kimberlee Smithton with the High Plains Technology Center, Dr. Jerry Neilson with OSU-OKC (Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma City campus), John Claybon from Oklahoma City Community College, Rick Avey, the president of independent FriEnergy, and Ed McCallum with McCallum Sweeney Consulting each gave their views on positioning Oklahoma’s workforce to grow the wind industry.

Smithton, whose campus is in Woodward in the northwest part of the state, talked about how this is an exciting time to be from Oklahoma, and that, in Woodward, they have “wind and lots of it.”

The future for her campus in the wind industry involves a progressive march toward an integrated energy training initiative that includes wind and other areas, like solar. In her opinion, certification is key, so that students can carry paper into a potential employer and say, “We’ve got these certificates; we’re marketable.”

Being certified and marketable were the two key words of the session. The first is a work in progress for all the programs discussed; the second, however, is a given. The three speakers associated with local college programs about the wind industry (Smithton, Neilson, Claybon) remarked on how popular they’ve suddenly become.

Neilson discussed the building of his school’s program from an idea in April 2008 to program approval in October of 2008. After the approval process, a press release went out about the new program at OSU-OKC. Neilson commented that when he returned to work the following Monday after a lovely and relaxing weekend, he had 282 e-mails and documented calls about the program.

“I thought the spam filter on my computer was broken, at first glance,” he joked.

“We know that there’s a demand,” added John Claybon with Oklahoma City Community College. “Our classes are full; we have a backlog. We know there’s a need for it. The challenge is meeting that need.”

Neilson’s college is looking at offering some classes online to meet that need. Claybon, Neilson and Smithton all see a growing demand and growing programs in their colleges. And, according to Claybon, this is no time to fight over students. It’s a time to work together to face that demand for educated wind industry employees.

“It’s going to take all of us,” he told the crowd at Wednesday’s session. “One school can’t meet that need.”

Rick Avey, president of FriEnergy, who worked with Francis Tuttle Technology Center to establish a wind turbine technician program, thinks Claybon’s on the right track — to a pool of better employees and an incentive to bring in wind industry businesses.

“We’re at a point of development here in Oklahoma where we either stand up and create centers of excellence or someone else will do it for us,” Avey stated. And, he sees a well-trained employee as a great benefit to wind industry companies looking for an Oklahoma spot to stake a claim. Keeping in mind that it may cost an employer up to $10,000 to get an employee “up to speed and insurable” and that many good technicians in the wind industry are avidly head-hunted, Avey believes Oklahoma’s progressive push in wind industry education to be a large boon. And, Ed McCallum agrees.

While McCallum put the cost at training an employee at between $2,000 and $3,000 (rather than Avey’s $10,000), he still admits that it’s a huge expense for employers and that programs like those being homegrown in Oklahoma colleges can be a real factor in convincing a company to come to the state. In fact, according to his experience with site selection, workforce skills and training is “consistently one of the top three” factors in how a company chooses a site.

“These school programs are a solution to a huge industry problem,” Avey added. “We need to drive excellence, certification and training in the state … The future belongs to those who recognize the opportunities in this industry — including education.”

Oklahoma Horizons
Opportunities abound in areas of education and fuel source for the wind industry in Oklahoma, but will the industry answer that call for action?

One company that at least answered a call for the conference was Acciona Energy, a 100-year-old company that is second in the world for owning and operating renewables, according to Tom Hiester, vice president with the company. He was the keynote speaker for the conference luncheon. Joking that the attendance for this conference was “larger than the first AWEA event,” Hiester had a simple premise for his speech, that wind is a huge business opportunity but that, like all opportunities, there are hurdles.

First and foremost with these hurdles is transmission.

“We need long-distance transmission. We need lots of it … Wind is a fuel that must be used in place, unlike gas or coal,” Hiester noted. This requires transmission lines. The building of transmission lines requires money. The bottom-line question is: Can Oklahoma bring in enough wind to offset the cost of the lines?

Hiester believes so. He quoted a DOE estimate that the state had the potential to harvest 725 billion kWh from wind. Hiester even noted that, perhaps, the DOE numbers were too high and that, for sake of argument, he’d give those numbers “a haircut” and shave it down by a factor of four. That’s about 180 billion kWh a year, or approximately 30 percent of the current oil and gas business in the state.

“At $2 million per megawatt, Oklahoma is a $100 billion opportunity,” Hiester added. “Clearly, wind is worth the fuss.”

In the end, Hiester called not just for more transmission, but for more government help in getting Oklahoma on track for more wind energy investments. Citing issues like Eisenhower’s interstate highway system (the largest public works project in history), Hiester noted that when big government and big thinkers unite, the country gets society-changing projects.

It remains to be seen if the wind industry is a society-changing project for the state of Oklahoma, but with government entities like the Oklahoma Department of Commerce helping out and attendance exceeding all expectations at this regional conference, it’s possible that Oklahoma may, in fact, be driving that Eisenhower-paved track.

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