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Green by Design

Posted: March 08, 2009
by Paul Bradley

It was not lost on community college leaders that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law by President Obama will invest nearly $80 billion in renewable energy, energy efficiency and green transportation initiatives.

Direct appropriations for energy-related projects, along with tax credits and research and development grants, are expected to give a shot in the arm to an alternative energy sector reeling under the pressure of the economic downturn.

According to a U.S. Senate analysis of the legislation, all that energy-related spending will create between 500,000 to 1.7 million jobs.

And where will all those workers come from?

Increasingly, the answer is community colleges.

Perhaps more than any other field, the nation’s community colleges are leading the way when it comes to embracing green technologies. Colleges are both promoting environmental stewardship on campus and equipping students with the technical skills they’ll need to secure a lasting job in burgeoning green technologies.

Many community colleges were among more than 600 higher education institutions to sign on to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, a formal pledge that compels colleges to reduce energy consumption and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

As a result, sustainability principles and practices are guiding community colleges’ decisions on everything from management to curricula to community outreach. Colleges are using their campuses as laboratories to provide a foundation of learning for students, faculty and staff.

Now, community colleges are poised  to benefit from the Obama Administration’s new emphasis on green energy technologies, said a new report from the Academy for Education Development and the National Council on Workforce Education.

From associate degrees to certificate programs and non-credit courses, two-year colleges are providing training for new jobs in emerging sustainable energy and alternative fuel jobs.

Because of their rapid-response capabilities and sensitivity to community needs,  community college alternative energy programs appear on the verge of exponential growth, the report said.

“The emerging transition to a low-carbon and sustainable economy holds great promise for economic growth and prosperity, innovation, and job creation. New green technologies and discoveries — coupled with new demand and forward-thinking public policies that advance sustainability and encourage public-private investments — are starting to transform the economic landscape as products, services, and jobs are reoriented toward a greener future,” the report said.

“Community colleges are at the forefront of this growing momentum for action on climate change, sustainability, and green workforce development. Across the country, colleges are exercising leadership and meeting their social mandate to create a thriving, healthy society by modeling ways to eliminate global warming emissions, creating living classrooms on campuses, integrating sustainability principles into curricula, and educating and preparing workers for new, reoriented, or emerging jobs in the clean energy economy,” it added.

Well-Positioned for Growth

Mindy Feldbaum, who researched and wrote the report, said the growing role of community colleges in training the green workforce is a “clear and emerging trend” that has been under way for several years.

“Community colleges are really walking the walk,” she said. “Their campuses are becoming learning laboratories. There is a general awareness of the need for environmental stewardship. The next generation of leaders in these fields is being trained at community colleges.”

Feldbaum said the nimbleness of community colleges to quickly devise training programs sets them apart from their four-year brethren.

“A lot of these jobs are not new occupations,” she said. “They are transforming existing jobs. A construction worker has green skills added to his training, for example. That’s why community colleges are so-well positioned. It really is about modifying career paths rather than creating new ones.”

Darlene G. Miller, president of New Hampshire’s Manchester Community College, said providing auto mechanics with the technical skills needed to work on hybrid vehicles and alternative-fuel technologies of the future is among the goals of the Automotive Science and Technology Center now under construction on the college’s New Hampshire campus.

Burnishing Skills

“These people are not merely mechanics or grease monkeys anymore,” she said. “They need to be skilled in electronics and other systems that are going to be in the vehicles of the future.”

The $12 million auto tech building, the first phase of which is set to open in September, will be the first building in the city of Manchester for be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

It will be equipped with the latest in green technology, Miller said. It will include a daylight-harvesting system to save money on electricity and a rainwater-collection system for flushing toilets and urinals.

But more than that, its classrooms and curricula it will stress the use of new materials and technological advances which are becoming part of the automotive industry, she said.

“We are not creating a new curriculum,” she said. “We are infusing our existing curriculum with these new technologies and practices.”

Said Marc Bellerose, the college’s automotive technology chair: “The center will be a showplace for that is environmentally conscious, learning friendly and cutting edge technologies for automobile technicians. The building will also offer opportunities to explore advanced technologies and alternative fuels.”

For colleges, the embrace of green technologies has a payoff in addition to imparting valuable job skills to their students. It can also save institutions substantial amounts of money, said Steve Scott, president of Wake Technical Community College.

Wake Tech, located in the heart of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, has long embraced training students in new technologies. In 2008, the college received a 2008 Innovation of the Year Award from the League for Innovation in the Community College in recognition of its Northern Wake Campus — the first campus in the nation to be totally LEED-certified.

Built at a cost of $45 million, the campus has saved more than $100,000 through sustainable practices, reduced water and energy use and cut down on construction waste by 50 percent, Scott said.

Scott said installing various green technologies to the campus added 1.3 percent to its overall cost. But all of that money is expected to be recouped within five years.

“This college is committed to our people and to the environment,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do to preserve the environment. And if you reduce costs now and in the future, well, that can’t hurt.”

The campus is being used to teach students sustainable construction skills they can use in the field.

“We have a construction technician program, and students do internships with the companies that built are campus,” he said. “They can learn first-hand what kind of technologies go into a 60,000-square-foot building built to LEED standards.”

Ready To Work

“Green jobs and energy efficient jobs would be created as part of the stimulus package,” Scott said. “We want our students to be prepared to take advantage of those to go to work as soon as possible.”

North Carolina has emerged as a leader in welcoming green technology. The state’s Board of Community Colleges recently approved “green collar” additions to its curriculum, adding 15 new courses.

At Central Carolina Community College, a sustainable farming program launched in 1999 has evolved into an associate degree program in alternative energy technology. The college is currently constructing a plant that will be capable of producing both biodiesel and ethanol from various feedstocks, said Andrew McMahan, program coordinator.

The new plant will include a combination of technologies needed to make alternative fuels, he said. But the emphasis will remain be on workforce development and responding to the needs of the community the college serves.

“We’re not training chemical engineers,” he said. “That’s not our focus. We’re training technicians who can use what they learn to make a usable fuel that meets some stringent specifications.”

McMahan credits the college’s alternative energy initiatives with fostering an awareness of the need for environmental stewardship.

It also has opened eyes to the career possibilities in sustainable energy.

“There are a lot of jobs that are hands-on technical jobs,” he said. “You don’t need to be an engineer to hang a solar panel. You do need some technical skills. That’s where community colleges can come along and say, ‘we can teach that.’”

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