Windfall boosts wind energy program
LAHARPE — Dreams of starting up a wind farm and renewable energy technology program at LaHarpe’s Regional Rural Tech Center are one step closer to reality.
Officials from EDP Renewables, which is ready to begin construction of a wind farm in northern Allen County, presented local officials with a $150,000 donation Wednesday to go toward the program’s development.
Coupled with a $100,000 contribution from Allen County earlier this year, planners are now roughly halfway to their goal of having enough seed money to get a wind energy tech class going, perhaps as early as next fall.
The next key will be if RRTC can attract a $250,000 matching grant from the Kansas Board of Regents, said Stacey Fager, USD 257 superintendent of schools.
Officially, the grant is being sought on the tech center’s behalf through Cloud Community College, which would provide the wind energy tech course in LaHarpe.
Fager said the tech center has “a pretty good chance” at being awarded the matching grant.
“If that happens, then we’re right about where we need to be for funding.”
Organizers said launching a wind tech energy program at RRTC required $500,000- $600,000 for equipment, creating classroom space in the LaHarpe center and hiring an instructor. Students enrolled in the construction trades program out at the center would be a natural fit for constructing the new space, he said.
Cloud Community College has had such a program for years, and was eager to expand to a satellite venue to attract more students. Cloud’s program typically enrolls 30 students per semester.
The Regional Rural Tech Center provides college-level instruction to high-school students in career-specific areas.
This is the third year the RRTC has had a construction trades class in place, and the second straight year for welding technology. Wind and renewable energy technology courses would be the third.
Instructors are provided by area community colleges: Fort Scott for construction trades; Neosho County for welding. Allen Community College, meanwhile, offers support services, such as embedded credit testing.
High schools in Iola, Marmaton Valley, Uniontown and Crest provide the students, although word of a potential wind energy tech program has drawn inquiries from other districts.
“We could draw students from a wider area, especially with all of the wind farms coming in,” Fager noted.
Kim Ensminger, Marmaton Valley High School principal, confirmed a large number of students in her school have expressed interest as well.
If the program can get off the ground, school officials will look to attract between 12 and 16 students a year.
Graduating from the wind tech program virtually assures a student of a lucrative job afterward, noted Bruce Graham, a retired Cloud instructor who has helped with plans to expand the program to LaHarpe. Since 2006, the Cloud wind energy program has celebrated 100 percent student placement.
“Some of our students have been placed before they graduate,” Graham said. “Sometimes, they’re hired right out of the classroom. We try to discourage that, because if we can fully train them, they’ll be better employees. But sometimes a wind farm needs somebody right now.”
Graham sees demand for wind energy increasing with each passing day.
He points to a number of factors.
As technology behind wind turbines improves, engineers are capable of building larger, more efficient windmills, capable of generating sufficient power with even less wind.
And because electricity from renewable energy is competitive with coal-powered electricity, corporate demand is increasing as well.
“The biggest thing that keeps it going is demand from corporate entities like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Hershey’s, Budweiser, Mars, General Motors,” Graham said. “They all want renewable energy. And how do you meet the increasing demand? By putting in more renewable energy.” The other key is the fuel source.
“The cost is very stable. The cost of wind (free) never goes up. Same thing with solar. And the delivery of the fuel itself is free. You already have it. I don’t know where this increased demand will end. Perhaps it won’t ever end. I don’t see it dropping off any time soon.”
He points to the large volume of trucks spotted along Kansas highways transporting wind turbine components.
On hand for Wednesday’s EDP donation were school officials from Iola and Marmaton Valley as well as Fort Scott and Neosho County community colleges.
Allen County commissioners John Brocker, Jerry Daniels and Bill King also were recognized for the county’s $100,000 contribution. Bill Maness, Allen County’s economic development director from Thrive Allen County, and Damaris Kunkler, who promotes community engagement through Thrive, also were in attendance.
Fager singled out the contributions of LaHarpe businessman Ray Maloney, who purchased the old Diebolt Lumber facility east of LaHarpe and donated its use for the tech center, and Ken McWhirter, Marmaton Valley superintendent of schools, who was unable to attend Wednesday’s event because of illness.