PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — For Ben Dutil and Jeff Cropley, it was a summer spent as pioneers.
The two wind power technology students at Northern Maine Community College will be the first students in New England to earn an associate degree in the field next year. They also were among the first in the NMCC program to spend the summer working in paid internships on wind development projects around Maine.
“It was a great experience,” said Dutil, who came from Winslow to enroll in NMCC’s wind power program. “I learned so much during the time I was there, and I feel like it was a huge benefit to me both professionally and educationally.”
Dutil and Cropley were part of a group of 11 NMCC wind power technology students who served as interns this summer at four different companies. Dutil, along with six other NMCC wind power technology students, worked for Larkin Enterprises on the Kibby Mountain wind power project in western Maine. The wind farm is under construction along Kibby Mountain and Kibby Range in the Boundary Mountains. The Kibby wind power project will be capable of producing 132 megawatts of electricity when fully operational in coming months. Larkin is a Maine-based international corporation that offers field engineering, maintenance, commissioning and supervision in the energy industry.
Dutil spent the summer performing many jobs, including wiring the turbines and installing wind sensors and aviation lights. He worked 10-hour days four to five days a week, at times swaying in the wind as he worked at the very top of a turbine.
“At first, it was odd walking to the site, because I didn’t quite know what to expect,” he said. “But I soon saw that everything I learned in the classroom during my first year was applicable to the work that I needed to perform. Everything that I was taught I used over the summer. The employees were really great too. I mostly worked with electrical workers, and they were curious about what I was learning. So we were able to trade information. They taught me things and they asked questions of me.”
Cropley interned for independent power producer TransCanada, which owns Kibby Mountain. The Mars Hill resident was supposed to spend the summer shadowing the construction manager, but shortly after beginning the internship, his supervisor was so impressed with his knowledge of the turbine operation that Cropley ended up taking on a key role for the company and receiving a job offer after he graduates next year.
Cropley spent the summer inspecting the towers and issuing mechanical completion certificates. He worked with the team responsible for overseeing the contractors and overall construction of the wind farm, completing inspection of 16 of the 22 turbines erected in the current phase of the Kibby project.
“I had a fantastic time,” he said. “I went down there thinking I was just going to follow the manager around, and instead I got a really hands-on experience.”
Cropley said that many employees at the site came from natural gas and hydropower facilities.
“We got to ask a lot of questions of each other,” he said. “I also found that everything I learned in class I applied on the job site from Day One. I also learned a lot and have come back for my second year much more confident.”
Cropley said he was impressed with the level of detail that went into every aspect of the construction and maintenance of the turbines, an insight that Dutil agreed with.
“When the towers are turned over to the companies responsible for them, they are immaculate,” Dutil said. “It is like handing someone a brand-new car.”
Both Dutil and Cropley have heard most of the criticisms of the wind industry, including speculation that it is just a fad that won’t create lasting jobs and that the turbines are detrimental to wildlife. Both brushed aside such criticism.
“I think some people are just resistant to change,” Dutil said. “I never saw a single bird or bat or other creature harmed by these turbines. When I was working at the top of the turbine, I would look down and see moose and other animals standing on the cement at the base. There were no dead birds or bats lying anywhere. I don’t think people recognize the economic value that these turbines will bring to the state. This industry is going to continue to grow and employ more Mainers, in my opinion.”
Cropley said that protesters came to his job site over the summer, but he said that much of what they were saying was “ridiculous.”
“A lot of these misconceptions can be proven wrong if people would just get educated and listen to the facts,” he said.
Wayne Kilcollins is NMCC’s wind power technology instructor. He said that all of his students had a “great summer” interning for their respective companies, and he was able to sit down with the students to talk about what they learned and experienced.
“These students came back really fired up,” he said. “Most of them had the opportunity to climb the towers, just like we do during the year, and they saw what is going on in the field. They are now more in touch with the wind industry, and I received excellent feedback from the companies that hired these students. Everyone benefited from this partnership.”
Kilcollins said he has made adjustments to the second-year curriculum of the wind power technology program to match up with the feedback he received from the interns. He also has received feedback on the curriculum from officials in the wind industry.
Both Dutil and Cropley credited Kilcollins with providing them an excellent education and said they are confident they made the right decision when deciding to pursue a career in the wind industry.
Cropley already has a job lined up, if he wants it. Before leaving the construction site to return to NMCC, Cropley was offered a position by Vestas, the contractor that constructed the turbines for the Kibby project. The job would take him to Utah, where he would do work similar to what he did this summer, only for a natural gas power generation plant.
The single father of three is considering the opportunity, but will wait until next year to make a decision.
“I’d actually like to work here in Maine,” he said. “There are all kinds of opportunities out there just waiting for us when we graduate.”