Evan Kissel on the safety tower in New College Institute's Advanced Manufacturing room. On the floor are two safety mannequins. Students must be able to carry a 150-pound mannequin down from the tower. Photo: Randy Walker

Twenty-seven miles off the coast of Virginia Beach stand two gigantic wind turbines, each taller than the Washington Monument. Each turn of the blades brings the future a little closer.

Dominion Energy’s two pilot turbines in the ocean east of Virginia Beach. Photo: Dominion Energy.

The turbines are part of a pilot program for Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) project. If it’s approved, Dominion will plant 176 turbines in the sea floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The largest offshore wind farm in America will require men and women to install, operate and service the turbines.

“Safety is our top priority at Dominion Energy and all personnel who will access and work on the offshore wind turbines will be required to complete Global Wind Organisation training, which includes first aid, fire awareness, working at heights and sea survival,” said Jeremy Slayton, a Dominion press contact. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions. See our policy).

Karen Jackson, NCI’s interim director since 2019. She recently left the post. Courtesy of NCI.

Amid concerns over cost, the project is under review by the State Corporation Commission in Richmond. One person with an interest in the outcome is Karen Jackson of New College Institute in Martinsville. Jackson, a former state technology secretary, said she is “absolutely” confident it will win approval. 

And when it does, NCI will be ready to train its crews.

CVOW is one reason why NCI started Virginia’s first wind technician training program certified by the Denmark-based Global Wind Organisation.

“I’ve always been fascinated by offshore wind,” said Jackson, who until last week was interim executive director of NCI,  and a Hampton Roads resident. “In my own personal capacity, not my NCI capacity, I had volunteered with some of the wind planning organizations that ODU [Old Dominion University] had, and so had been in enough of the meetings to recognize that there was going to be a massive training need in the Commonwealth.

“So, looked around, and GWO has a map on their website that showed all of the GWO training centers, there was nobody in Virginia. And so kind of put two and two and two and two together and said, you know, this would be a great opportunity for NCI, it’s brand new space. And so we got in early. And so it was a calculated move to put NCI on the map internationally, as well as nationally as a wind turbine training center.”

Wind instructor Evan Kissel holding a safety mannequin. Photo: Randy Walker

Then-governor Ralph Northam announced the formation of the Mid-Atlantic Wind Training Alliance at a wind power virtual summit in October, 2020. The partners in the alliance are NCI, Centura College, and Norfolk-based Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy. 

NCI’s program opened its doors in February, 2021. Last year, it had 18 participants. Most are from outside the state and are sent by their employers.

Everything about this program is young. The coordinator, Evan Kissel, is 23. He joined NCI last year after serving in the Marine Corps. He replaced Brian Pace, who retired June 1.

Each of two courses, GWO Basic Technical Training and GWO Basic Safety Training, lasts one week. Cost is $2,400 for technical training and $1,845 for safety, Kissel said.

The technical course covers electrical, mechanical and hydraulic aspects of turbines. The focus of the safety course “is pretty much how not to kill yourself,” Kissel said. “Electricity is very dangerous.”

NCI posts course dates on its website. In addition, “if a company wants to send their guys on a date that we don’t have, we’re more than willing to work with them and set up the training date,” Kissel said.

Elias Aguilar, an employee of Texas-based Global Wind Service, studies hydraulics in an NCI classroom. Photo: Randy Walker

On June 2, Elias Aguilar was one of three students in the hydraulics lab. Aguilar, 32, is something of a wind farm nomad. The California resident, an employee of Texas-based Global Wind Service, has worked on projects in Kansas, Colorado and Texas. 

The students said starting pay in the industry is typically $20 to $30 per hour. 

“But they also get supplemented per diem since they are traveling,” quality assurance instructor Clifford House said, “so they get a certain amount for meals and hotels. And a lot of these guys who have been in the wind industry long enough are somewhat mobile, so they buy campers and pull behind, so that way they have access to a vehicle, but also a place to stay, so they’re actually making a little bit of extra money, being able to save money by camping.”

Once Aguilar and the other students complete training, their records will be available online, serving as a kind of training “passport,” said Dan Ortega, GWO’s North America representative said in an email. 

“There are 33 GWO training provider facilities in the US and 3 in Canada. We are expecting ~10 more this year,” Ortega said. The first U.S. training provider was certified just over 10 years ago. Student numbers increase every year; in 2021, there were 5741 participants. 

“The Global Wind Organisation is the ONLY wind technician specific certified training program in the world,” Ortega said. Providers must pass an audit by a third-party certification body. “This gives end-users (participants and their employers) a high level of certainty on the quality of the training delivered and what specific learning outcomes are achieved.”

Brian Pace and his team “have been great to work with,” Ortega continued. “They were one of the early adopters of the Basic Technical Training modules and were willing to provide assistance or guidance to other U.S. training providers looking to add these modules to their own program.  I have been extremely impressed with NCI’s level of cooperation with various other training providers.  They always seem to be willing to help and don’t see everyone as a competitor.”

Baldwin Building, part of NCI’s three-building campus in Martinsville. Photo: Randy Walker

Wind training is one of many credentialing programs offered by NCI, including cybersecurity, medical billing, and telehealth. 

NCI was established by the state in 2006 in response to a loss of manufacturing jobs and a need for expanded training and educational opportunities in Southern Virginia. In addition to industry-specific credentialing, students at NCI can earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees through partnerships with other institutions. Offerings include a bachelor’s degree in education from Longwood University; master’s in counselor education from Bluefield University; master’s in educational leadership from James Madison University; and a doctoral degree in education from Virginia Tech. Students typically enter these programs after having completed general-ed prerequisites at other schools such as Patrick & Henry Community College.

Students live off-campus; there are no dorms. The campus spans three buildings in Martinsville. NCI also offers distance learning. 

Enrollment “is program specific unlike a traditional academic program where you register for a semester of classes,” Rebekah Hughes, website and marketing administrator. For the fiscal year ending in June 2022, NCI served around 500 participants. “despite being limited capacity due to COVID for most of that time,” she said.

Education happens on all levels. In casual conversations, Evan Kissel sometimes has to clear up the most elementary misconceptions about wind power. “I’ve actually had someone ask me if the turbines actually take energy,” he said. “They thought it was like a giant fan, which in reality, it’s not.”

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism...