Brandon Knight entered the alternative energy engineering program at Lansing Community College in 2006 with an eye toward owning a business dedicated to developing solar panels, wind turbines and perhaps even other energy sources that people haven’t heard of yet.
He believes alternative energy holds the future for him and the state.
“It is quite clear to our generation how things are moving in the world. Alternative energy really provides benefits,” Knight said. “The big draw to me is the balance between the environment and the economy, and this improves both.”
Knight, 25, is among a number of students toward whom the state’s educational institutions are tailoring programs in alternative energy. With demand spiking worldwide for more eco-friendly options, and the days of guaranteed jobs in the auto industry becoming a thing of the past, some educators agree overall interest in the alternative energy field is increasing.
All 15 of the state’s public universities are offering courses devoted to alternative energy. The state has also identified 88 universities, colleges and educational centers for a worker retraining program with a focus on green jobs.
“The single most important step to address the global energy needs is education,” said Margaret Wooldridge, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan.
“You essentially want to let the students go eyes open.”
Wooldridge has taught an “Advanced Energy Systems” class that has grown from 41 students to 60 in three years, with a waiting list.
At Michigan State University, the introductory class of “Earth Environment and Energy” has 170 students this semester, compared with 30 when it was introduced six years ago.
Experts say green energy jobs are coming to Michigan.
“There aren’t 20,000 jobs in the solar manufacturing world right now,” said Mark Beyer, spokesman for Detroit-based alternative energy advocate NextEnergy.
“The education is more process-driven, to get students to understand the technologies, than tell them this is what the future is going to be.”
At the University of Michigan, at least 60 courses are recognized by the Phoenix Energy Institute as alternative energy-oriented classes. Michigan State has 75.
In 2003, Wayne State University added an interdisciplinary master’s degree and certificate programs in alternative energy. While only 10-12 students receive a diploma in alternative energy each year, Wayne State Dean of Engineering Ralph Kummler expects the number to grow once the economic benefit is based less on potential and more on readily available jobs.
One institution converting education into jobs is the Michigan Institute of Aviation and Technology in New Boston. Traditionally known for turning out airplane mechanics, the school recently expanded offerings in its power technology school.
With 30 years in the auto industry, Bruce Lazarus enrolled in the institute’s wind turbine technician program after he was laid off from his engineering position with Chrysler in November.
“Electricity has to be built on site,” said Lazarus, of South Lyon, who holds a master’s degree from Central Michigan. “(Wind) is a renewable energy we can put up anywhere.”
Lazarus, 48, graduated in August and has accepted a position with Siemens Wind, traveling the country helping bring wind turbines online.
His 22-year-old son is joining the same program and is hoping for a similar job.
NextEnergy’s Beyer and other energy experts say Michigan’s green sector will grow once companies move on new state standards requiring power companies to produce 10 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2015.
According to a report by the Anderson Economic Group, Michigan has the potential to generate nearly 60 percent of its total electricity output from such sources as wind, dams and ethanol. In 2005, only 3.3 percent came from renewable sources, compared with 8.8 percent nationally.
In another analysis by the American Wind Energy Association, Michigan has the potential to become a leader in wind energy — a field it estimates could produce more than 30,000 jobs.
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