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Creating new energy and opportunity

Mizzou Engineering's ENTECH Director Shawn Xu, who for years has been training U.S. and international business owners to use geothermal energy, will help teach Missouri's first university-backed renewable energy technology training program.

Marine veteran Neil Ouellette sees both public service and personal opportunities in a renewable energy training program Mizzou Engineering is helping teach.

Injured during the Gulf War and subsequently discharged in 1991, the 39-year-old Kirkwood, Mo. resident returned home to work as a truck driver and a builder before launching a successful outdoor landscaping business. Ouellette believed he had found a lifetime occupation as the owner of Granite Mountain Contracting, which he ran for five years.

But that changed about three years ago. Like hundreds of thousands of other war veterans, Ouellette began experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms—flashbacks, sleeplessness—and was unable to continue operating his business. He sold Granite Mountain Contracting in July, 2005, before seeking help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Now Ouellette is eager to return to the work force with the help of a renewable energy technical training program that the MU College of Engineering’s Institute for Energy Technologies (ENTECH) will pilot later this month with the Veterans for Energy Transformation and Sustainability Solutions (VETSS), Belcher Homes and ANSWERS, Inc. Ouellette voiced enthusiasm about his prospects for success in a field he dubbed “a good cause.”

“It’s something I can believe in,” Ouellette said.

Military veterans as well as displaced workers and students are the focus of the 10-day training program, which aims to ease their transition to civilian life while meeting a growing demand for renewable energy sector workers. The program, slated to kick off in March in a private St. Louis training facility, will be Missouri’s first university-backed renewable energy technology training program, though VETSS and Belcher representatives have been traveling throughout the country to teach some of those techniques for several years.

Leaders of Mizzou Engineering’s ENTECH joined forces with their three St. Louis-based partners after changing the MU center’s focus last fall from environmental and energy technology to building energy efficiency and renewable technologies.

ENTECH Director Shawn Xu, an MU College of Engineering research associate professor, will add geothermal energy education to the training program’s portfolio. Xu, who has been training U.S. and international business owners to use geothermal energy for 10 years, will join Oklahoma engineering business owner Phil Schoen to teach geothermal principles, design and installation techniques during the upcoming program. Geothermal technology, which draws heat from the Earth to both warm and cool buildings, is a promising energy source sparking interest throughout the nation, Xu said.

Also in the program’s curriculum are solar and energy-efficient design and construction techniques, as well as ways to retrofit older buildings with renewable energy technology. The workshop will be a “very practical” mix of technical training and theory, geared toward a demand for renewable energy technicians that already exists, Xu said.

“The technology and market are there,” Xu said. “We need the workers to capitalize on the technology and the market.”

While recent U.S. government spending plans underscore new growth in the renewable energy market, training course sponsors said builders have long sought workers familiar with alternative energy technologies. So-called “green” construction practices have been on the rise for a number of years, and the field needs people who understand and have received training in those techniques, said Matt Belcher, Belcher Homes president and a cosponsor of the course.

“It all starts with the carpenter or trades person doing the installation,” Belcher said. “They need to know what they’re doing.”

MU energy experts believe both the need for renewable energy training and veteran economic relocation will rise. They aim to develop a statewide training program that could be further expanded.

“The plan is to be nationwide with it,” said Mizzou Engineering Research Associate Professor Robert Reed, who, as a leader of MU’s Center for Sustainable Energy, is helping Xu develop the training program.