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A federal grant is blowing a new wind energy training program into Billings.

Montana State University Billings College of Technology is one of four schools around the state sharing a $1.97 million U.S. Department of Labor grant to start one- and two-year programs for as many as 50 students.

The grant will fund collaborative programs at Montana State University-Northern in Havre and colleges of technology in Billings, Great Falls and Butte. If the program is approved by the Montana Board of Regents, students could enroll in the programs by fall 2010, said John Cech, dean of the Billings COT.

As now conceived, the program will offer a one-year certificate in alternative energy training that includes wind power. Students also could complete a two-year associate degree that would specialize in wind energy.

Students would be trained for jobs to support an emerging wind energy industry. Several wind power projects now operate in the state, including one near Cut Bank that has 70 turbines and 70 more turbines planned in the future, Cech said.

The new program will fit in well with other energy-related training programs at the Billings college, including process plant technology, power plant technology and biodiesel technology.

Historically, jobs in the energy field have paid well. Students graduating from COT's power plant program typically start at $50,000 a year. The wind energy program is expected to be similar to the COT's successful construction trades program, Cech said.

The three-year Department of Labor grant will pay for startup costs, buying equipment and hiring instructors.

Montana ranks fifth in the country in wind power capacity and has enough potential to provide 20 percent of the country's wind energy, according to industry estimates.

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