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Reno to be home to first school for geothermal plant operators

John Seelmeyer

The math, says Norma Velasquez-Bryant, is compelling.

* The number of workers needed to staff geothermal plants under development in Nevada: 4,936.

* The number needed nationally: 11,997.

* The number of schools worldwide that will train technicians to run geothermal plants: One, once Truckee Meadows Community College launches a program in Reno early next year.

And while the program is expected to begin modestly with about 20 students, TMCC’s Velasquez-Bryant says it holds promise to attract a growing number of students from throughout the world.

While money is flowing into university research of geothermal, most notably at the National Geothermal Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno, less attention has been paid to development of the workers who will oversee daily operations of the plants, says Velasquez-Bryant, a program manager at TMCC.

The growing geothermal industry has been relying on ex-Navy submariners whose experience on nuclear craft transfers to the operation of renewable facilities, says Jim New, an associate dean of applied industrial technologies at TMCC.

But the industry’s development quickly will outstrip the available supply of Navy veterans.

For every megawatt of geothermal power under development, the Geothermal Energy Association estimates 1.7 jobs will be created. Multiply that by the 2,903 megawatts of geothermal facilities in the pipeline in Nevada, and nearly 5,000 workers will be needed.

Idaho will need more than 900 workers for geothermal plants. Oregon will need nearly 700. And California will need more than 3,000.

With the help of Sen. Harry Reid, TMCC won a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop its geothermal plant operator program, and assembled a 10-person advisory committee from the renewable-energy industry to develop the program.

The result: A 13-class, 34-credit program that will extend over three semesters.

It combines a couple of basic math and English courses with six existing course offerings at TMCC in subjects such as industrial safety and the operations of electric motors and drives.

Five classes specifically focused on geothermal wells, piping, generators, controls and environmental regulations were newly developed for the program.

Some courses will be taught at the TMCC High Tech Center at Redfield (Redfield Campus) adjacent to the Ormat Galena III geothermal plant at the southern edge of Reno.

Teachers are being recruited from the industry, and its support has been critical to the project.

“We’ve got to give credit to the industry people,” says New. “This has moved much more smoothly that other projects we’ve undertaken.”

He says the geothermal-operator program is a natural offshoot of a two-year program that offers a specialty in renewable technologies to construction-technology students.

“It has taken off beyond our wildest dreams,” says New, noting that about 200 students currently are learning skills in solar, wind, biomass and other renewable-energy fields.

In recent weeks, Velasquez-Bryant says, she’s spoken with more than a dozen students who are interested in learning the skills of a geothermal plant operator.

“This has long-term career potential,” she says. “Our students are recognizing that.”

Interest is beginning to percolate, too, from geothermal companies and potential geothermal technicians around the world who are looking to the TMCC program to fill their needs for a skilled workforce, says Velasquez-Bryant.

“We’re ready to build whatever they need,” she says.