Arizona, California colleges offer free biofuels classes

By Holly Jessen | December 06, 2011

Thanks to grant money, students in Arizona and California can earn certificates that will train them to work in the biofuels industry, including ethanol production.

About 55 students are expected to begin classes March 2012 at University of California San Diego Extension and Mira Costa College to obtain certification as a Biofuels Science Technicians. The free classes are made possible through $7,000 grants to the students, thanks to a $4 million grant from California’s Department of Labor under the Green Innovation Challenge. The program will train workers for the biofuels industry, including analytical chemistry, microbiological/crop management and biological/biofuels lab techniques for industries such as corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel and more.

“This program is not only training workers for new jobs in the local economy, it will eventually help our nation become less dependent on foreign oil,” said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at UC San Diego and director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, “The bioenergy sector will eventually be creating millions of jobs nationwide.”

Several hours east of San Diego, an Arizona college is also offering free renewable energy technology courses. Central Arizona College received a three-year $2.2 million grant  from the U.S. Department of Labor's Community-Based Job Training Alternative Energy Grant, which will pay the tuition of any 18-year-old or older U.S. citizen. Although it’s open to anyway, it specifically targets veterans and unemployed or underemployed workers. “It's exciting. There's a lot of interest,” says Peter Combs, program coordinator. “Right now, we're a leader in the state and in the Southwestern United States.”

The first courses were offered in fall 2010 and are ongoing during the three-year grant. To get certified as a biofuel technician, students take classes such as ethanol process fundamentals and distillation and evaporation theory. The certification program is for 12 credits. The renewable energy technician associate degree is for 61 total credits. It’s transferable to all three of Arizona’s state universities and includes courses such as pollution controls and fluid power. “If you look at the classes, this is a very intensive program,” Combs says.

The program also includes a nine-credit certificate for solar energy which takes nine classes plus an internship to complete. The internship pairs students with partners in Pinal County that find installation projects among grant recipients and those eligible for low-income housing. “We have had four different groups from the reservations to low-income housing in Eloy that have asked us to bring our students to do installations for them,” Combs says.

The grant money is enough to cover expenses to train 120 biofuel technicians, provide 54 associates degrees in renewable energy technology, offer work readiness classes to 250 students and train 125 photovoltaic technicians. The purpose is to help community colleges train workers in the skills required to succeed in high growth/high demand industries such as renewable energy. The goal is to employ or increase the retention and earnings of the trained workers while also meeting the needs of the businesses in the targeted industries. “This program is one of the most diverse in our college's history,” says Dr. Georgia White, dean of professional and technical education.