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From left, Northwest Technical College students Kieran Belter, Derek Bohan, Jon Barcenas and Erik Lindgren work on installing a solar panel system on a model home in a facility the college is leasing along Paul Bunyan Drive Southeast. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

$250,000 energy grant will give NTC competitive edge

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John Wilder, a first-year student at Northwest Technical College, said his dream job is to build small, residential buildings that make good use of energy.

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The 31-year-old, Twin Cities native moved to Bemidji seven years ago as a professional carpenter, but decided to go back to school when work slowed.

He decided to enroll at NTC to learn more about installing and fixing heating and plumbing systems, but has since become particularly interested in energy-efficient heat pump technology and solar thermal options.

Wilder could not have picked a better time to explore this field, as NTC was recently awarded a $250,000 Minnesota State Energy Sector Partnership Grant it will use to teach students about new products and services that benefit the environment, also referred to as green energy.

As part of the grant, NTC will partner with Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program, Bi-County Community Action Program, Bi-CAP YouthBuild, Red Lake YouthBuild and Bemidji Carpenters Union to provide training in the installation and maintenance of solar panels and wind turbines, energy-efficient heating units and other technologies.

NTC is currently leasing the former Bemidji Honda Motor Sports building located at 808 Paul Bunyan Drive Southeast, where school officials have big plans of turning it into a green energy learning center.

On Thursday afternoon, Jeff Brower, NTC plumbing instructor, showed Bemidji State University and NTC President Richard Hanson a map of the average number of sunlight hours recorded across the United States, which plays a role in determining how useful solar panels can be.

"With our long summer days, we have basically the same number of kilowatt hours that we can extract from the sun as Miami, Fla.," Brower said. "People always say there are not enough sunlight hours in Minnesota, but it's virtually the same. We're not quite Florida, but we're really close."

Inside the building where motorcycles and snowmobiles were once showcased, remodeling projects have begun to transform the facility into hands-on learning areas.

New lighting has been installed in the building, Brower said.

"Our rebate alone for this facility was $4,000," he said. "We estimate we cut our lighting bill in half by going to the new lights."

Students are involved in almost every step of the remodeling process. On Thursday, a group of students was busy installing a new water heater system.

NTC faculty are also taking advantage of the floor-to-ceiling windows that line Paul Bunyan Drive Southeast.

"This building is not the most efficient facility," Brower said. "But on the training end, it works extremely well."

According to Brower, students will use the windows to measure the sun's energy as it comes through the windows and how much energy is lost through the single-paned windows.

After taking a tour, Hanson called the new facility "great."

"This will be another teaching center," he said. That's pretty exciting. We're getting a handle on the technology and our students will have the advantage of being involved in a front-running program."

Hanson said NTC's future is headed toward emerging technologies.

"This grant is a tremendous first step and I think it's going to open some doors for what appears to be a pretty significant federal investment," he said. "As we continue to use gobs of energy, people are saying, 'What are the alternatives?' These guys are going to come up with the alternatives."

While this grant opens new doors, it could also lead to new challenges. The two-year technical college must learn to compete with other colleges and universities headed in the same direction.

While Hanson agreed the green energy market is highly competitive, he said NTC will look to recruit regionally.

"We need to stay competitive with the big people who are investing millions of dollars in this area but also provide training," he said. "We're just Bemidji, but we're Bemidji and we can do some of this stuff because we are small."

The Minnesota State Energy Sector Partnership is funded by a three-year, $6 million U.S. Department of Labor grant and provides training and job placement activities in the areas of energy-efficient construction, renewable power and bio-fuels.

But relying on grant dollars to purchase new technology to teach students could also put the college in a tight spot down the road. Once equipment becomes outdated, the college could have to replace it with new technology in order to stay competitive.

Gretchen Larson, who NTC hired to help write the green energy grant, said she does not think the college will have trouble sustaining technology in the future.

"Once we get this set up for it to be a state-of-the-art area, I can see the college always being supported for a long time," she said. "We already have all of the instructors. When this grant came out, it was a no-brainer (to apply)."

Brower said what makes NTC unique compared to other colleges is it brings together construction electricity, plumbing and heating, and carpentry programs under one roof.

Brower said students who graduate with a degree in residential plumbing/heating, ventilation and air conditioning graduate get more than what their diploma reads.

"They have skills for three actual professions in plumbing, HVAC and sheet metal work and that's why our job placement is 100 percent," he said. "They are being sought out."

For details about the grant, visit www.gwdc.org/initiatives/msesp/index.html.

For details about NTC's sustainable living programs, visit www.ntcmn.edu/.

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