Community College Program Encourages Idea Exchange in Green Fields of Study
Walking through the new Trades and Advanced Technology Center at Santa Fe Community College is like touring one big practical idea incubator.
Students are taking theories from the biofuels, solar, welding, wind and weatherization classes offered at the center and learning hands-on, real-world applications. Then they’re inventing and testing their own versions.
They’re making ethanol from tossed-out sugary doughnuts and biodiesel from used kitchen grease. Art and trades students collaborated to test the best energy-efficient lighting for art studios.
Teachers support their students’ entrepreneurial thinking and experimentation in a building designed to change as rapidly as technology and track the results. What could come out in the next few years are homegrown companies, new products and good jobs. The programs are attracting students from around the state and across the nation, interested in what they believe are the lucrative green jobs and big business opportunities of the future.
Some, such as Santa Fe electrician C.D. Friedman, are looking to the program to give an old career new life. “My company had done great for years in Santa Fe,” said Friedman, who owns Enchanted Electric. “Then business dried up the last two years” with the housing market crash.
He believes alternative energy is the wave of the future, and that the United States, long dependent on oil and gas, is way behind other countries in diversifying energy options. He plans to be among those electricians who are trained and ready to handle all the new energy technology coming on the scene.
The Trades and Advanced Technology Center, which opened for classes in January, will be open to the public at 2 p.m. Friday. Visitors can tour the labs, see solar and electric-car demonstrations, and participate in a panel discussion with renewable-energy experts. Building professionals can take a $25 continuing-education class on solar thermal in the morning for credit.
Students learn how to install solar photovoltaic panels and then will actually install some on the building’s roof. They’ll run the wiring and tubing underneath roof panels that look like thick rubber tiles, designed to easily pop up and then lock back together. They can work with the building’s rooftop garden and experiment with different plants to create a living shade over the west-facing windows. They’ll design systems for harvesting water off rooftops and landscapes.
The 45,336-square-foot building is sort of one gigantic classroom. It is partially powered by solar and biomass. More solar, wind turbines and solar thermal are in the works. The building’s interior industrial design, with exposed pipes and ducts, and power boxes showing the wattage used or produced, allows students to see first-hand how the energy-efficient center’s parts work together. A 3,000-gallon tank on a mezzanine and another 35,000-gallon underground tank collect and filter rooftop water that is used in the facility’s bathrooms.
The six large open workshops have abundant natural light and are designed for a multitude of uses. Dry-erase boards surround all four walls in the classrooms, inviting a lot of collaborative scribbling. One room has large flat screens for viewing three-dimensional designs and houses a 3-D printer. Even the wheeled tables and chairs are designed for a quick reconfiguration of a lab or classroom to meet different class needs.
The building and the programs it houses are the culmination of a longtime dream of college president Sheila Ortego. “She has talked about advanced technology training since 1995,” said Al Reed, dean of business and applied technologies, who’s worked at the college for 22 years.
The environmental technologies program at the college started with 200 students a few years ago. Now there are more than 1200. “People are hungry for this training,” Reed said. “Due to physical constraints, we can’t add more classes.”
Wilson said he was supposed to limit his solar classes to 16 students. He’s finally capped enrollment at 26 and still has a waiting list.
The biofuels program “has taken off like wildfire,” said Ree. It started two years ago with a $100,000 federal grant, but was housed in a garage in the nearby Oshara Village subdivision. Now that the lab is finished, students have access to a variety of equipment to build, test and experiment with different biofuel distillers and fermenters.
Matt Sherman, 43, came all the way from Pennsylvania to enroll in the program when he heard it had its own distillery and distillery license. He’s learning about all the ways waste can be turned into fuel. Then he plans to open his own company. “I’m trying to find the best return on investment for biofuels,” Sherman said. “It is better to learn here first before jumping into a business.”
One earlier graduate, David Schwartz, launched and is co-publisher of Algae Industry Magazine, a leading online biofuels publication. Another designed a new biofuels generator and started the company New Solutions Energy.
Students are constantly looking for ways to create a closed-loop biofuels process, where waste resources become fuel and no new waste is produced. Recently they built two hoop houses to see if the carbon dioxide produced in the biodiesel production process could be used to grow bigger plants. “The students are adamant there shouldn’t be a waste stream,” said Xubi Wilson, one of the solar instructors and curriculum developers at the center.
Another lab houses the Energy Smart Academy, funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant. Students learn lead abatement and weatherization with the latest tools. They also learn how to avoid making a house or building so airtight that people inside end up breathing polluted air. A large plastic model house complete with a fireplace, garage and moveable plastic panels, allow students to see how carbon monoxide and other pollutants can travel through cracks in walls and fill up houses. “Airtight homes can actually be dangerous,” Wilson said.
The center is one more step toward an ambitious college goal. A sustainability committee is working on more ideas for the campus to one day create most of its own energy, process biofuel for its own shuttle buses and grow food for its culinary program.