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Renewable Energy Training Field in Chicago Designed to Meet Exploding Demand in Smart Grid Applications

Nov 05, 2015

From the start, the focus of a new renewable energy facility in the Chicago area has been on the future. Harry Ohde, assistant director of the IBEW/NECA Technical Institute (IN-TECH), and his training director John Donahue first discussed creating more quality educational opportunities in electrical construction. Then, they sought to expand their operation’s current renewable energy training program and develop a cutting-edge curriculum that includes both hands-on and classroom projects. On September 19, 2015, that discussion became a reality as the Renewable Energy Training Field celebrated its grand opening at the IBEW/NECA Technical Institute.

nnoctpic1Over the course of about nine months beginning in October 2014, they joined with industry leaders to create the Renewable Energy Training Field, a unique facility designed to train electricians and support electrical contractors as they work to meet the demand for smart-grid applications or solar and wind for residential, municipal, commercial and industrial properties.

The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) Chicago and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local #134 solely funded the facility, helping to fulfill the critical need for electricians with renewable energy expertise.

“The Renewable Energy Training Field is a win-win situation for the IBEW-NECA partnership,” Ohde said. “The field was designed to accommodate the opportunities that lie ahead for designing, planning, installing and maintaining all renewable energy technologies.”

The facility was built on the grounds of the IBEW/NECA Technical Institute in Alsip, a southwestern suburb of the Windy City. David Witz, president of the Electrical Contractors Association of Chicago, said his organization was excited to celebrate its grand opening and to show the world what the NECA/IBEW partnership doing. The facilty is open to the public on weekdays with tours by request.

Project organizers expect the Renewable Energy Training Field to offer a dynamic approach to quickly respond to the training required for emerging energy technologies well into the future.

nnoctpic2“The Renewable Energy Training Field is the result of a longstanding partnership between labor and management to meet the future demand for renewable energy that is coming like freight train,” Witz added. “We are doing what we can in the electrical industry to decrease dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions.”

NECA Chicago and IBEW Local 134 have a 100-year history of working together to provide quality educational opportunities to Chicago-area electricians.

In their long alliance these two organizations have shaped the growth of innovation in Chicago as they helped to build and wire many firsts such as Daniel Burnham’s groundbreaking lakefront plan, Chicago’s first telephone system, and the city’s first subway system. They have also helped erect many of Chicago’s unique landmarks including Willis Tower, Wrigley Field, O’Hare Field, the John Hancock Building and the Art Institute of Chicago, Trump Tower, as well as the city’s first skyscrapers, hospitals and other buildings.

The organizations opened a newly renovated IBEW/NECA Technical Institute in 2007. The 120,000 square-foot building consists of 12 large classrooms, eight laboratories and full-size residential and commercial mock-ups where apprentices can practice. The facility is unique because it offers training and simulations in many different electrical and renewable energy processes with hands-on experience. For example, a student will be able to remove, cut, re-weld and reinstall solar panels to make adjustments to a wind generator based on given site requirements. Students will also learn battery storage techniques and energy transfer systems that will help customers shave peak energy costs and potentially sell unused energy back to the local utility.


The facility will also be a center for research and development where an electrical contractor can engineer and demonstrate a client-site application. This allows contractors to solve site issues, giving students real-world training  while meeting client’s needs cost effectively.

The training facility was designed to showcase renewable applications.
They include:

  • A 5-kw Bergey Wind turbine which will be used to teach electricians and contractors about small-scale wind turbine energy. The wind turbine produces electricity, which is then sent back to the panelboard to help offset the building electrical loads. The wind turbine is supported by a monopole that can be hydraulically raised and lowered in one minute.
  • A 3-kW dual axis solar PV tracker that harvests up to 40 percent more of the sun’s energy than a standard fixed tilt angle solar PV array. The array uses Sharp 250 W solar modules and Enphase micro-inverters. The micro-inverter system allows the DC voltage to be converted to AC voltage, as the micro-inverter is physically located right behind the solar panel. AC is being directly supplied back into the AC panelboard.
  • A 5-kW asphalt roof solar PV array and a 5-kW metal seam roof solar array that are used to teach the students how to properly install solar PV arrays on these two different roof applications using proper PPE and safety techniques. Each PV array uses Sharp 250 W modules, but each has a different type of central inverter—the asphalt roof uses a 50-kw SMA inverter and the metal-seam roof uses 5-kw Fronius inverters. Each system also utilizes different racking systems.
  • A smart-grid application encompassing three different solar arrays totaling 73 kW solar power utilizing one 100-kW bi-directional inverter with energy storage technology incorporated into the system. The three different solar array systems are a 45-kW ground-mounted solar PV array, a 10-kW roof-mounted solar array and an 18-kW solar carport.

The facility was designed to accommodate future technologies as they become perfected and more readily available. Some of these future technologies include fuel cell technology, flywheel energy storage, vehicle-to-grid power technology and wireless energy transfer vehicle charging stations.

“The Renewable Energy Training Field serves many functions,” Ohde said, pointing to different renewable energy technologies and smart-grid applications such as solar photovoltaic systems, wind generation, battery energy storage systems and electrical vehicle charging stations. “Each of the components were designed to power the IN-TECH electrical power needs and permit the installer to have top-notch, hand-on projects. That is critical to making sure the installer is well-rounded in the renewable energy field.”

NECA Chicago and IBEW Local #134 want the general public to learn about renewable energy applications and “smart grid” technology and how they can benefit from these technologies by ultimately saving money and reducing carbon emissions. Additionally, they want the public to understand that solar storage improves the reliability and stability of the grid. For example, it takes seconds for a solar storage unit to respond to the smart grid’s request for more power compared to up to 20 minutes for a turbine in a traditional power plant, thus reducing power outages and other issues.

Project organizers said there are fewer than 50 renewable certified electricians in Illinois and about 500 nationwide, most of them in California.  The main certifying bodies are the North American Board of Solar Energy Practitioners (NABSEP) and Interstate Renewable Energy Council. This facility is poised to add to the total.

“The future is clear,” Don Fill, business manager and financial secretary of IBEW Local #134, said. “There was one choice and that was to meet the growing demand for renewable energy. Contractors will be able to take requests from customers knowing they have electricians with the best training and who certified in renewable energy. The Renewable Energy Training Field, along with other state-of-the-art IN-TECH training, produces electricians who can handle anything in the electrical realm.”

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