ICCC takes a personal look at energy

Thursday, September 27, 2007

As Ray Beets talked about energy on the first day of classes at Iowa Central Community College, some of his questions fell close to home - or even inside the home.

"How would you handle the flood if you didn't have sump-pumping motors getting it out of your basement?" asked Beets, director of the industrial technology department.

And a little later, as he noted ways energy injects itself into international relations, Beets ranged into more distant terrain.

"Do you think we'd be in the Middle East if they didn't have oil?" he asked.

Beets was leading day one of a new program in sustainable energy technology.

Early in the morning a group of eight students assembled for the class, "Energy: Its Use and the Environment," named after the course text.

Some students - such as 28-year-old Mike Clay - envisioned careers in alternative energy fields such as wind technology after they graduated.

Clay said after class that he wanted to manage a wind farm.

He mentioned a large wind turbine on one of the campuses of Iowa Lakes Community College, and he said he hoped U.S. citizens would turn more thoroughly to renewable fuels. The work of operating and maintaining a wind turbine, he said, was also stimulating.

"Working on them excites me because there's hydraulics, electronics - all sorts of different systems," he said. "You have to know a little bit of everything to do that."

Another student in Beets' class, Wade Whitaker, said his own observation of energy use on the family farm near Marshalltown spurred his interest in alternative fuels. He said he's watched how much energy is burned daily at the farm.

"You have to use it," he said. "Right now there's not really another way to do it."

Whitaker said the job market, with ethanol plants sprouting in the region, also encouraged him to look to alternative energy as a career.

Though this is the first year for the program, Beets has been teaching - and learning - about alternative energy for decades.

He said he began teaching non-credit classes in passive solar design shortly after he arrived at the college in 1979 - and he still has a project created by a student in the 1980s that, with the help of four photo resistors, could draw enough energy from surrounding light to power a modern-day cell phone.

"They could have used something like this very easily in New Orleans and had cell phone service during the floods," said Beets, referring to his student Ron Neuman's project.

Beets said the timing was good for the program to begin this year, partly because of his recent trips to Denmark with students from three other community colleges to study sustainable energy.

He said they observed effective sustainable energy production in both rural and urban environments in Denmark. Beets noted that the surge in oil prices has also placed the issue higher on priority lists than it's been in the past.

Part of the program's goal, Beets said, is to provoke more efficient energy use - a theme he sounded repeatedly during the class. An early assignment is to examine some appliances to get a sense of how much unnecessary energy people are consuming. Or, as Beets put it to his students, one objective is to see "how many tons of coal it's going to take to operate things that really don't need to be operated."

Beets also noted employment opportunities for students trained in alternative energy sources. Though he said the class involves all sorts of renewable fuels, he mentioned wind power as the fastest growing in the world and in the United States. He said last year the college placed five students as technicians at wind farms.

In the college's nine-county area, Beets said, 640 wind turbines 750 kilowatts or larger were installed or being installed.

He also pointed to a much smaller wind turbine - 400 watts - on the roof of the Vocational Technology Building at Iowa Central.

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