When Patrick H. Rice looks out his office window at the pristine waters of the Florida Keys, lapping at the edge of Florida Keys Community College and surrounding the island campus, he sees more than a fabulous view: he envisions an open-air, controlled lab for students to conduct authentic research on renewable energy.
“We are surrounded by hydrokinetic power. We’ve got plenty of wind—sometimes way more than we want—and we’re the sunshine state. So it just makes sense to have a renewable energy program down here. The whole goal is to build the program, and, at the same time, have students help us build the program and build those industries,” Rice says. He is the college’s Chief Science & Research Officer and principal investigator of its Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant (Award # 1601440).
Three of the 11 students in the Engineering Technology-Renewable Energy Technician program, which Rice started with ATE grant support, are in the process of completing capstone internship experiences.
Two students are assisting with research and development of prototypes at Hydrokinetic Energy Corp.; a third student will soon begin his capstone experience at U.S. Solar Institute. The students are paid for the work they do during the 225-hour internships.
During the next phase of the overall ATE project, other students will test industry partners’ equipment in the Tidal Energy Simulation Laboratory (TESLa), the campus lagoon that is 170 meters long, 110 meters wide, and 10 meters deep.
Energy technician students and marine science students have already been helping Rice build a vessel that will move across the TESLa to simulate tides for testing hydrokinetic energy products. The TESLa vessel under construction is 32 feet long and 16 feet wide with central opening to deploy prototype devices for hydrokinetic education and research.
Entrepreneurs and university researchers are working on ways to capture tidal energy, wave energy, river flow, and in-stream currents like the Loop Current that brings Atlantic Ocean water into the Gulf of Mexico and then forces it back down between Florida and Cuba.
“We’re hopeful that we can be considered a real, world-class test facility for hydrokinetic prototypes,” Rice says. A start-up company and university research team have already agreed to use the college’s facilities and work with students while testing their new products.
The college’s 45-foot Corinthian Catamaran, which is used primarily for diving by students enrolled in marine science, diving, and marine engineering programs, will occasionally be used for hydrokinetic research too.
Leveraging ATE Resources
In creating the new associate in science degree, Rice leveraged the engineering technology (ET) degree curriculum that the Florida Advanced Technological Education (FLATE) Center developed with employers and colleges throughout Florida.
Offering the versatile and portable ET degree is part of Rice’s vision for making Florida Keys Community College a destination institution for renewable energy. During the past decade he grew the college’s marine science and technology programs with a similarly ambitious plan that utilizes its unique location and resources.
By aligning 75% of the renewable energy degree’s courses with Florida’s ET degree, Floridians who take the ET degree’s general education and core courses at state community colleges and universities near their homes elsewhere in the state can seamlessly transfer to Florida Keys Community College for the 25 specialized credits necessary for the renewable energy technician degree. This option cuts the time that students have to pay the high rents driven by tourism in the Florida Keys. The college is also in the process of adding another 200-bed dormitory.
The portability of the ET degree also works in the other direction: it is possible for FKCC students who take ET courses to transfer easily to other Florida public institutions if they want to focus on advanced manufacturing or other ET fields.
Rice intentionally included solar and wind energy certificates in the program that focuses on developing technicians for the nascent hydrokinetic energy industry.
“That industry doesn’t currently have a lot of position vacancies—there’s not a lot of jobs there. So that’s why I added the wind and the solar, so these students would have a really nice diverse portfolio in renewable energy,” he says.
He’s hopeful that the program’s graduates will help build the hydrokinetic industry.
“The next 10 or 15 years will see offshore wind and solar power at hydrokinetic facilities,” Rice predicts, adding that when this happens “Our graduates will be ideally suited for those high-skill, high-wage technician jobs.”