Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Alternative energy training thrives at Macomb Community College

By YANG ZHANG
Capital News Service

LANSING – After being laid off for half a year, Stanley Sala started a new career path at Macomb Community College.

Supported by federal and state funding, Sala, a 58-year-old electrician from Sterling Heights, enrolled in Macomb’s alternative energy program in August of 2009.

Sala said Macomb’s program will help him land a new job.

Macomb is one of 11 community colleges participating in the Alternative Energy Collaborative, a statewide program initiated by Michigan Community College Association. Among the others are Jackson, Oakland and St. Clair.

The collaborative helps each college develop alternative energy education, create curriculum and share training practices, said Michael Hansen, president of the association.

Lisa Richter, an energy technology instructor at Macomb, said, “We started doing some investigations and seeing some of the key areas we want to focus on.”

The college opened its solar program in 2008, teaching students how solar panels work. After evaluating pilot programs, it developed a model of six alternative-energy pathways:  wind; solar; geothermal; biomass and alternative fuels; green building and sustainable design; and entrepreneurship.

The model lets students choose the technology they want to specialize in, said Bill Stark, director of the college’s Center for Alternative Fuels.

Macomb is also creating a Center for Advanced Automotive Technology to train a skilled workforce for the emerging electric vehicle industry.

It recently received a $1.4 million federal grant to expand the program.

“We feel like that creating one degree wouldn’t do much justice to all the different fields,” Richter said.

Instead, the college offers a certificate in alternative energy that could complement the existing associate’s degree programs, she said.

For example, students taking a management degree can also earn a renewable energy certificate.

The program also benefits laid-off workers who want to get a certificate in a short, intensive period rather than a four-year degree, said John Richter, an adjunct instructor teaching solar technology at the college.

The program had 87 students at its inception and enrollment has increased to 209. Most are high school graduates. Others include laid-off workers, delivery drivers and master’s students in engineering or business.

Even a local chef who wants to open a “green” restaurant took the courses at Macomb, Lisa Richter said.

But it’s a challenge for community colleges to find qualified instructors, Hansen said.

To complement existing faculty, the college has recruited renewable energy specialists from industry.

One of them is Lawrence Muhammad, who began teaching a geothermal class part time last summer. He’s a certified trainer in geothermal technology and owns a business in Detroit that installs municipal geothermal utilities.

Muhammad said the training not only gives community college students opportunities to find jobs, but also helps create a workforce for businesses to grow. He said his company, Geo NetZero, will hire some students from his class upon graduation.

A Franklin-based renewable-energy company, Franklin Wind Energy Group, is providing training and internship opportunities for Macomb students.

“But we don’t have job openings for them right now. Maybe in the future,” said David Koyle, the chief executive officer.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm identified alternative energy as one of the key areas for diversifying and developing Michigan’s economy.

Experts predict that renewable energy and energy efficiency alone will add $4.5 trillion to the U.S. economy by 2030 and create millions of jobs, according to the governor’s office.

John Richter said, “If you look at the solar technology industry, it’s been growing more than 30 percent every year for the past 10 years. There is a need to train more people.”

Recently Michigan was ranked the third across the nation by Business Facilities magazine among “Alternative Energy Leaders.”

As for Sala, the laid-off electrician plans to graduate and get his renewable energy certificate in December with hope for better chance at a wind or solar system design job.

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