Southern Virginia Looks to Wind Energy Southern Virginia Looks to Wind Energy

NCI trains people for jobs in the growing green energy industry through a new program.

MARTINSVILLE – For decades, Southern Virginia cities and counties have looked for ways to rebuild the economy. One college believes the key is through green energy.

Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced the formation of Virginia’s first offshore and onshore wind workforce training collaborative, the Mid-Atlantic Wind Training Alliance. The program offers industry-required certifications critical to the operations and long-term maintenance of wind projects.

“Building a strong wind energy workforce will give the commonwealth a significant competitive advantage in attracting onshore and offshore wind projects,” Northam said in a statement. “There is currently massive potential for offshore wind up and down the East Coast, and we look forward to working with our partners across Virginia and in neighboring states to grow this industry and reap the tremendous economic benefits for our communities, especially those that have been historically disadvantaged.”

Leading the Charge

Serving as the host institution, New College Institute (NCI) joined forces with Centura College and the Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy (MAMA), creating the Mid-Atlantic Wind Training Alliance. This partnership brings courses certified by the Global Wind Organization (GWO) and National Center for Construction, Education and Research wind technician training to onshore and offshore wind projects in Virginia and the mid-Atlantic region.

“As we decided to pursue the Global Wind Organization training center designation, we made a conscious choice to pursue offering training courses that are [or] would be key to an identified growth area for the commonwealth, the nation and frankly the world,” said Karen Jackson, NCI’s interim executive director. “Renewables, and specifically wind-related training programs, primarily because of the investment being made by the commonwealth and large private sector firms, seemed to be worth taking a calculated risk—and so far, we have been correct. We also chose to start with two of the most basic courses that also require periodic recertification to maximize opportunity.”

A Somewhat Surprising Location

Martinsville sits approximately 245 miles from the windy Atlantic coast. The city resides around 1,335 miles from Winters, Texas, the approximate central point for the state producing the most wind power.

However, that doesn’t mean Martinsville can’t use wind power. Last month, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality granted the final permit for the first onshore wind energy operation. Apex Clean Energy plans to build up to 22 turbines as tall as 680 feet on a mountain ridge in Botetourt County. That’s only about 90 miles from Martinsville.

“Because of our location—close to both onshore and offshore wind farm locations—and our positioning as the first in the commonwealth to offer the courses gives us a unique opportunity to bring individuals from around the globe to train in Martinsville—creating economic development opportunities and hopefully establishing NCI and Martinsville as a rural innovation and training hub,” Jackson said. “We expect our students to be local, as well as from other parts of the state, the mid-Atlantic region and beyond.”

A Step Toward the Future

The alliance represents the first step in a large workforce development effort supporting renewable energy industries in Virginia. Course offerings span a wide variety of wind energy related disciplines, providing students with a customizable portfolio of training options.

Programs range from specific certifications to a year-long wind turbine technician program that bundles several industry-recognized certifications and prepares students to serve as certified installation technicians, inspectors, and maintenance technicians. The alliance plans to offer programs in early 2021.

“These are definitely certifications—what is referred to as stackable credentials,” Jackson said. “Alone they definitely qualify an individual to go to work on the turbine, but they also serve as a foundation for other more advanced training opportunities—some that NCI hopes to offer in the future.”

Jackson further noted that program completers qualify for employment opportunities with companies that are building, operating or maintaining wind turbines both onshore and offshore.

Producing Clean Energy

The wind industry in the United States supported 120,000 American jobs in 2019, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). The AWEA also estimated that the wind industry invested more than $208 billion in wind projects across the country. That’s a production capacity of at least 109 gigawatts of power to date.

“Clean energy jobs in construction and operations will serve as a catalyst for delivering clean, renewable energy to the commonwealth,” said Josh Bennett, vice president of offshore wind for Dominion Energy. “The formation of the Mid-Atlantic Wind Training Alliance is a critical step to developing a talented offshore wind workforce here in Virginia.”

Together, Dominion Energy and Avangrid Renewables have nearly 400 offshore wind turbines under development off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina.

“As Avangrid Renewables builds the future of clean energy offshore, establishing the workforce that will maintain and operate these projects for decades will be critical,” said Eric Thumma, interim vice president of offshore wind for Avangrid Renewables. “The Mid-Atlantic Wind Training Alliance will facilitate the development of that workforce and the success of the offshore wind industry.”

New Opportunities

“Virginia is taking important steps forward in harnessing the significant economic and job opportunities of American wind power,” said Tom Kiernan, American Wind Energy Association CEO. “Wind turbine technicians are America’s fastest growing career and today’s foresighted move to train additional workers in this field shows that the commonwealth continues to lead our nation toward a cleaner and more prosperous energy future.”

Along with offering courses, NCI also hopes to offer financial opportunities for those interested in the program.

“NCI is actively working to align our courses with the appropriate workforce credentialing programs to help defray some of the cost for Virginia residents,” Jackson said.

The interim executive director noted the unique partnership among NCI, Centura College and MAMA—an arrangement between private for-profit centers and a state agency, NCI. The training programs that both Centura and MAMA offer take 14 months and  include a number of non-GWO credentials. Those, Jackson noted, are primarily located in Hampton Roads. 

“For the companies who are building out capabilities, the alliance provides a great foundation of wind-related training that can be expanded as the market evolves and the workforce needs grow,” Jackson said. “Finally, the cross-state partnership demonstrates that the Commonwealth’s wind activities and investments are truly statewide in nature and that the rural areas do have a role to play in the wind industry. We want NCI to be known as the Commonwealth’s premier training center for GWO related training.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at amie@couriernewsroom.com