New Facility Targets Tomorrow’s Electricians

By Matt Baker

The cost to install alternative energy technology like wind and solar has steadily dropped for the last several years. One consequence of this competitive pricing on renewables is that the next generation of electricians will need revolutionary training in order to install and maintain these revolutionary technologies.

That’s where the IBEW NECA Technical Institute (IN-TECH) comes in. A joint education facility between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers #134 and the Electrical Contractors Association of Chicago, IN-TECH has graduated thousands of apprentice electricians and enhanced the skills of journeymen.

This September, they cut the ribbon on a renewable energy training field (RETF) at their Alsip campus. There, IN-TECH will prepare union electricians to use the latest sustainable technologies at the country’s largest outdoor training campus of its kind.

“I’m particularly proud of the groundbreaking partnership of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers #134 and the Electrical Contractors Association of Chicago. Without the dedication, expertise and funding of the IBEW #134 and NECA Chicago, this impressive facility—this school as a matter of fact—would not exist,” said David Hardt, President, National Electrical Contractors Association. “[The RETF] will be a dynamic research and development facility to innovate and showcase emerging technologies and respond to new code requirements.”

NECA Chicago and IBEW Local #134 hope that the training facility will exhibit renewable energy applications and smart grid technology to the general public, showing how they can save money and reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, they hope to show how solar storage improves the reliability and stability of the grid. For example, a solar storage unit will respond virtually instantaneously to a smart grid request for more power while a turbine in a traditional power plant might need up to 20 minutes to deliver that electricity.

Illinois State Senator Michael Hastings spoke at the facility’s opening, demonstrating how significant it is for the state and the region. “This is a flagship facility,” Hastings said. “This is a showcase facility for other states to adopt. Hopefully every state can have a facility like this so that their workers can be trained on it.”

The training facility will offer training, simulations and hands-on experience in many different electrical and renewable energy processes. For example, a student will be will be able to remove, cut, weld and reinstall solar panels or make adjustments to a wind generator based on given site requirements. Students will learn battery storage techniques and energy transfer systems that will help customers shave peak energy costs and potentially sell unused energy back to the utility. It will also be a center for research and development where an electrical contractor can engineer and demonstrate a client site application. In this way, the contractor can solve a site issue while students receive real world training.

The RETF features an 85-foot tall, 5 kW wind turbine that students can use to understand how to operate, inspect and maintain turbines out in the field. The turbine nacelle can be hydraulically raised and lowered for either maintenance needs or to show students the different housing components of a wind turbine.

Also on the site are a 60-foot tall, enclosed tower that mimics the base of a wind turbine and a 100-foot tall cell tower. Scaling such towers in the field can be both physically demanding and treacherous so students will learn not only how to safely ascend such a structure, but how to rescue and lower a worker who has been injured.

IN-TECH’s new facility contains solar photovoltaic panels in a number of environments and installations that electricians might encounter on the job. A 3 kW dual-axis tracker, for example, follows the sun on its daily path, harvesting up to 40% more energy than a fixed-angle array.

While fixed panels aren’t as efficient as tracking versions, they are cheaper and thus, more commonly installed. The RETF features a 45 kW ground-mounted solar array that mimics what the students might find in a utility application. The rugged mechanical support structure is designed for repeat installation and take-down scenarios. A separate 18 kW solar carport has five electric car charging stations, built to adapt to the evolution of electric vehicle technology.

Designed by Legat Architects, the most idiosyncratic element of the project is a 4,500-square-foot building that resembles a space shuttle that just disembarked from a mother ship. A glowing strip of LED lights draws attention to the intriguingly-shaped new building which houses two battery energy storage systems. Energy coming in from the wind turbine and solar panels is managed here; the school draws power from the batteries and any excess goes to the grid.

Atop the battery control room building are yet more photovoltaic panels. One batch is set on a sloped, roof, half asphalt shingle and half standing seam metal roof, to mimic these roofing conditions. Each uses a different racking system to demonstrate the variety of uses that the students may encounter in the field.

Also on the roof is a solar array that is designed to incorporate with a skylight structure. The solar panels are angled to the south and electrically operable windows on the north allow natural light into the building. Between the wind turbine and the various photovoltaic arrays, the RETF generates over 80 kW of power for the school.

The renewable energy training field is also future-proof, designed for technologies as they become perfected and more readily available. These technologies include fuel cells, flywheel energy storage, wireless vehicle charging stations and vehicle-to-grid power technology.

John Donahue, Director of IBEW/NECA Technical Institute, sees the facility as a pathway to a renewable future. “The [RETF] provides these pathways with training for our electricians, the most advanced technology, innovation for our contractors and a showcase of many efficient renewable energy options for our customers,” Donahue said. “And this is only the beginning.”

Photos: NECA Chicago & IBEW Local #134 and Matt Baker

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