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Sauk winds down wind program amid declining student interest

Published: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 11:10 a.m. CDT

DIXON – Gone is the wind energy program at Sauk Valley Community College.

The college Board of Trustees on Monday voted to discontinue the program amid declining interest from students, which officials attribute to negative perceptions of wind energy in this area, among other factors.

Sauk has offered a wind energy program since 2009.

The program consists of the basic wind energy certificate and the advanced wind energy certificate. Both could be completed within a year and would qualify graduates for many careers in the wind industry.

The program flourished in its first couple of years. A recent survey even showed 85 percent of graduates have or had jobs in the wind industry, many locally.

"It got off to a good start," Sauk President George Mihel said. "Students who graduated got good jobs. And even the ones who are graduating still are getting good jobs."

But the program has seen a decline in enrollment over the last couple of years.

"The industry hasn't taken off like we imagined it would," Mihel said. "[The anticipated boom in the industry] materialized momentarily and never really took off."

Wind energy programs at other community colleges in the region have experienced a similar decline.

Sauk officials attribute the decline to the downward turn in the wind industry, as well as the increased cost of turbines and lower electricity prices.

Market research supports the notion that wind has lost momentum.

In years past, the industry boomed as companies pushed to get wind farms up and running and claim incentives ahead of the expiration of the federal production tax credit.

But in the first half of this year, since the tax credit ended in December, but then was renewed a few days later, the industry has come to a standstill as many developers have delayed or scrapped plans for turbines.

The on-again, off-again status contributes to a boom-bust cycle of development that plagues the wind industry, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Data show that installations surge while incentives are available, then drop between 73 percent and 93 percent after tax credits expire, according to the group.

Sauk officials also attribute the decline in interest in wind energy to local perceptions – often negative – of the industry, wind farms and wind turbines, which creates "uncertainty" in the job market.

That idea is supported by the recent backlash from Lee County residents who have been outspoken against a controversial wind farm.

But the Lee County Board on Tuesday approved the wind farm, 12-9, despite a negative recommendation last month by the Zoning Board of Appeals. Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power plans 53 turbines for the southwestern corner of the county.

The one Sauk student who is enrolled for the advanced certificate will be allowed to complete the program. Two students were enrolled for the basic certificate, and they will be encouraged to switch to another program – solar energy or sustainable technologies – or directed to a wind energy program at another school.

Sauk will retain one wind energy course as part of its sustainable technologies program so it won't lose any of its investments, including space and equipment, in wind energy.

"One of the hallmarks of community colleges is that we can respond and develop programs quickly," Mihel said. "But we have to be just as quick to eliminate programs and create new ones."

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