New PPCC program to develop conservation specialists

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Colorado Springs Utilities Engineer Steve Doty will teach new energy conservation technician classes at Pikes Peak Community College.

Colorado Springs Utilities engineer Steve Doty has been called the Galileo of energy management, and he has used that expertise to create a degree program at Pikes Peak Community College.

The Energy Management Technology Program, leading to a two-year associate’s degree, trains students to take on the field work resulting from design and analysis needed to make commercial buildings energy-efficient.

Such an academic program is a rarity, and it’s intended to meet a need for engineers.

Engineer Michael Schlierf owns Helios Power and Light, a company that helps businesses save energy. He’s much more comfortable crunching numbers and designing solutions than crawling through ceiling ducts and checking basement furnaces.

“We’re already hiring some people on a contract basis to do the leg work for us, and having a steady supply of those kinds of people would be great. That way, I can do what I like to do — the computer work, the engineering side.”

Because Doty performs commercial energy audits for CSU, he’s used to the crawling and checking, and Schlierf says there’s no one better to train the technicians for the job.

“Going on an energy audit with Steve is like having Galileo as an astronomy teacher,” he said. “He literally wrote the book on energy management.”

Doty designed the program curriculum from scratch and will be teaching classes, some of which will be available online to reach out-of-state students who are stepping up to pursue positions where there is a scarcity of qualified workers.

But the scarcity won’t last — which is one reason PPCC jumped on the chance to create the program. It took two years to design the curriculum, and students can enroll for the first time this fall, though it will need at least eight students before it’s allowed to get off the ground.

“We wanted an opportunity to create jobs,” said Taffy Mulliken, PPCC’s dean of communications, humanities and technical studies. “We think this will get students jobs as soon as they graduate — to go and assess commercial structures and recommend modifications.”

Not only will new graduates find jobs, she said, the businesses that hire them will save money.

“They’ll save on energy costs once they implement the suggestions,” she said. “But they’ll also save money hiring a technician as opposed to an engineer to do the assessment.”

The new degree marks a move by the college toward more technical skills, she said.

“We do have a few technical degrees, certification programs, electrician program, computer-assisted drawing programs,” she said. “But this is a specific new area that there is a definite market for. Businesses spend money on energy and if they can cut that expense, their bottom line improves.”

Graduates can expect starting salaries to be roughly two-thirds of what a starting engineer makes.

“Working strictly in energy management, I anticipate around $40,000 to start,” he said. “There will be a range around this number, depending. For folks already working that use the program to augment existing duties, adding energy skills can be a value-added differentiator with a raise or improved security in their existing jobs.”

However, Doty adds a caveat: As with all jobs, the state of the business economy matters.

“With this particular job, the cost of utilities is also pivotal,” he said. “The more energy costs, the better we look. As with all jobs, the degree can get you noticed and an interview; it is not an entitlement. The success that follows depends on the individual.”

PPCC’s next step is to market the carefully crafted program, she said, to gain the minimum number of students.

Students are a good fit if they have a solid math and science background. If they want to move, the skills they’ve learned will find them jobs in just about any city.

“Even adult workers who want to retrain would be good for these classes,” Doty said. “Training is local, but the need is everywhere. These skills are very portable.”

The focus on commercial buildings is what makes the program different, Doty said.

“We are focused on commercial buildings that use 30 percent of the nation’s energy,” he said. “Our program provides the skills to find energy savings opportunities and quantify them — that’s the important part — to make the business case.”

To convince businesses to make the changes, which can be costly, program graduates will be able to tell businesses their bottom-line result, giving increased meaning to the audit.

The other characteristic that makes it different is that it’s a two-year degree, not a four-year engineering degree.

“Traditionally, this work is done by engineers,” Doty said. “It’s a white-collar job, more of a consultant role than installation and repair, so it is somewhere between technician and engineer; the main tool is the knowledge of what makes buildings tick.”

And even businesses that specialize in energy services will benefit, he said.

“Many businesses can mix the technicians with the senior engineers,” he said. “And that will bring the costs down. Many businesses have done without the energy audits, simply because of the price tag. And now they’ll have a new choice for in-house expertise.”

Graduates won’t just go to work for engineering firms like Schlierf’s. They can also go to work for property management groups, for school districts, for architectural firms that typically outsource their energy work.

Andrea Barker, principal and director of business development at HB&A Architects sees a need for the new degree program.

“We outsource all our energy modeling to engineering firms,” she said. “We only have architects and planners here, but we do include energy modeling in our designs. I think a program like this won’t only assist engineers who are doing electrical or mechanical work, but will also assist groups like property managers — people with a lot of very large buildings.”

Places like churches or convention centers that are only used for a few hours every week could benefit from hiring degree graduates as well, Doty said.

“When they finish, they’ll be able to find the best way to get the most savings from existing commercial buildings,” he said.

But Doty didn’t stop with designing the two-year degree program and writing the curriculum for it himself. In addition to earning an associate’s degree, the program puts students on the path for a nationally recognized certification of certified energy manager. It takes years, he said, but the degree is a component.

“It draws from years of practice,” he said. “And it’s a rigorous series of courses. But students with this degree can take the additional educational courses and then work toward the certification.”

The hard work is done, Doty said, but he is still worried.

“We really need students to enroll, to kick this off,” he said. “We have to get the word out that there’s this great new program out there that will lead to jobs for graduates.”