When Focus the Nation, a nonprofit advocacy group trying to engage the country's youth in alternative energy initiatives, started looking for regional hosts for a nationwide forum, it chose Northern Maine Community College to represent the Northeast. The school had already made waves in alternative energy circles for its pioneering work creating a training program for careers in wind power development.
"Because of our growing programs offered to students [in alternative energy], Focus the Nation approached us to host the forum," says Natalie St. Pierre, who began organizing the event last fall while still a student. She's since graduated and now handles public affairs for NMCC.
NMCC is the only site in New England chosen for the all-day conference that convenes March 9 with an opening address by former Gov. Angus King, now an entrepreneur in the wind power industry, and Habib Dagher, head of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine, which has been leading research in offshore wind development. An afternoon panel discussion examining Maine's renewable energy future will follow.
The point of the forum, "Empowering a generation to power a nation," is to bring economic development officials, businesses and students together to talk about the potential of renewable energy, assess each state's assets and resources, and identify roadblocks to advancement of renewable energy. The forums will be held at 21 other sites across the country. Reports from each forum will be sent back to the Portland, Ore.-based Focus the Nation, which will create a network to keep the participants engaged in implementing renewable energy solutions and use the information to influence advocacy of renewable energy in Washington, D.C., says St. Pierre.
One of her co-organizers of the conference, Benjamin Dutil, is anxious for the wind energy industry to take off. Dutil, a trained welder, is among the first class of NMCC students expected to graduate this spring with an associate's degree in wind power technology. The program is geared toward helping graduates find jobs as wind farm operators, both in the manufacture of wind technology components and with contractors who maintain turbines. "I've always been in the power generation field," says Dutil, 36, "but through combustion ... I worked for a trash-burning power plant."
Dutil says he changed fields to focus on a more innovative energy sector that helps the environment, while providing steadier hours and better pay. He says he earned $30,000 to $55,000 per year performing maintenance on trash-burning power plants, but the work was sporadic and dirty. Once he graduates in May, he hopes to line up work as a wind power technician, which should bring him regular hours and pay in the range of $40,000 to start and escalate to $80,000 for a supervisory position.
"Our training at NMCC is wind-specific, which opens a lot of doors for us," he says. "I love it because we have to know engineering, mechanics, electricity and other trades." He hopes the forum will give him a chance to network with representatives from wind power companies, and shine some light on the NMCC program, which trains for both offshore wind installations and land-based farms.
St. Pierre says she, Dutil and a third student organizer, Gene Martin, a business major, expect 80 people to attend the conference. The benefits to NMCC from hosting the forum are "relatively endless," says St. Pierre. "It's getting the word out about our offering some really great programs for students within wind power technology and says concretely that we take going green very seriously."