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Jeff Brower, left, a Northwest Technical College professor, discusses green energy with Mark Phillips, center, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, and Bob McLean, the chief operating officer and general manager of Hunt Utilities Group, during a tour Wednesday of NTC’s Sustainable Environmental Technologies program. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Northwest Technical College: Green-energy program highlighted in tour

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BEMIDJI – Teaching students to install and troubleshoot green-energy systems isn’t enough; they also have to be able to sell it, said Bob McLean, an executive with Hunt Utilities Group.

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HUG researches, develops and applies technologies and methods to support sustainable living and environmental stewardship. McLean, HUG’s chief operating officer and general manager, was among about a dozen people who took part in a Wednesday afternoon tour of Northwest Technical College’s Sustainable Environmental Technologies program.

NTC is in its third year of the program, which educates students on how to build and maintain green-energy systems such as solar, wind and geothermal.

John Centko, NTC’s provost and vice president, hailed the program as a success, saying it would become the premier center for educating technicians for the workforce.

McLean said having educated technicians who are able to sell the technology is the biggest challenge facing renewable energies.

“Teaching that skill is really important,” he said.

Representatives for the program said graduating students are taught how to do cost-analysis for customers to demonstrate how systems will run and what they can save in the long run.

“The success of this program will be based on the success of the technicians we send into the field,” said NTC’s Jeff Brower, who teaches plumbing and solar thermal systems.

Gretchen Larson, a Bemidji State University/NTC grant writer who works with program development, told McLean the college also has new project in the works through which students will learn how to start and operate their own businesses.

McLean suggested that NTC partner with the a Small Business Development Center .

“To me (SBDCs) are heroes,” McLean said. “They help people really understand what it takes to get a business up and running and be successful.”

Earlier this year, NTC secured a $250,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development enabling the college to bolster its Sustainable Environmental Technologies program and purchase about $86,000 worth of state-of-the-art equipment.

Larson said the ultimate goal for the Sustainable Environmental Technologies program is to become the leading training center for a multistate area.

“The goal is to educate kids who are going to meet workforce needs,” she said.

The creation of partnerships, such as those with industries, American Indian tribes and governmental officials, are another key goal, she noted.

The Sustainable Environmental Technologies program offers a two-year A.A.S. degree and also a 20-credit certificate.

DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips, who also took part in the tour, applauded the college for giving students those options, noting that the state values credentials.

“I really admire you for doing that,” he said.

Phillips, in an interview prior to the event, said the state is interested in green-energy initiatives.

There now are two Minnesota companies that manufacture solar panels – Silicon Energy in Mountain Iron and tenKsolar in Minneapolis. 3M, he continued, continues to be the “world leader” in creating the film required for solar panels and other Minnesota companies are producing electrical needs for solar-energy systems.

“We’re interested in growing green businesses throughout Minnesota,” Phillips said.

A representative with one of those Minnesota companies told Phillips he used to employ four employees dedicated to solar energy but now has 21.

“That kind of opened my eyes a little bit,” Phillips said.

Brower, the professor, said he had a similar experience when he attended a workshop on educating students in green-energy technologies.

He was a little skeptical, Brower said, but once the instructor said that solar-energy systems supplement existing systems, he was sold.

“All of a sudden, the light switch went on,” he said.

Duane Carrow, director of renewable energy programs at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, said he took part in the tour to see firsthand what other colleges are doing to prepare future green-energy workers.

Carrow said NTC’s Sustainable Environmental Technologies program is unique. Other colleges might offer a particular piece, such as wind or solar energy, but do not have a dedicated program focused on multiple systems.

When asked if Minnesota State Colleges and Universities wants to expand those offerings, Carrow said it does, but the question facing MnSCU now is how to do so.

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