Charting new horizons: Three Minnesota West alumni, lead the future of offshore wind energy

Published 8:30 pm Friday, March 15, 2024

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In the quest for a sustainable future, three alumni from Minnesota West Community & Technical College are at the forefront of shaping the Offshore Wind Energy landscape along the East Coast. Zane Smith, Shane Watts, and Marshall Sims have embarked on a remarkable journey from the heart of the Midwest to the shores of Massachusetts. They are leading a historic milestone and a promise to generate clean, renewable and affordable energy.

Their story unfolds against the backdrop of the Block Island Wind Farm which blazed the trail for offshore wind energy in the United States and sustained electricity for approximately 17,000 households in Rhode Island. Building on this foundation, Vineyard Wind has embarked on a mission and begun delivering clean energy to Massachusetts in 2023. With the ambitious goals set forth by the Biden administration, the project strives to utilize wind power to provide energy for the needs of over 400,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts.

Not only does this endeavor significantly reduce carbon emissions by over 1.6 million tons annually, but its strategic location, boasting strong and consistent winds in shallow waters, presents a monumental opportunity for the United States to transition towards renewable energy sources. Moreover, this project continues to create new job prospects, local collaborations, a skilled union workforce, and the development of fresh businesses in the area.

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Construction of the project commenced in late 2022 with Vineyard Wind deploying the GE Haliade-X wind turbines. Today, boasting 300-foot blades and towering heights, the structures stand proudly located in the middle of the ocean about 15 miles off of Martha’s Vineyard.

Leading the charge in this monumental undertaking are Smith, Watts and Sims, all graduates of Minnesota West’s Wind Energy Program located at the Canby Campus. Armed with ample expertise, hands-on experience, and dedication to their craft, they set out to reshape the energy landscape for future generations.

For Zane Smith, the path from Minnesota West to the shores of Martha’s Vineyard began with an internship with Granite Services International before receiving a A.A.S. degree in the electrician program in 2016. Starting his career in Kansas, he developed his mechanical and troubleshooting skills in over a dozen states across the US before venturing into coastal waters. Discovering an interest in wind-site construction, he spent six years working as a Lead Commissioning Technician for a company that later became FieldCore, a GE company. Smith has received top-notch equipment specific and safety trainings in places such as France, England, Texas and the Renewable Energy Learning Center (RELC) in New York.

In 2022, he began his role as a GE Vernova Lead Commissioning Supervisor, Smith oversees the seamless integration of technology, communication, and teamwork, ensuring safe, efficient and effective turbine operations. During his downtime from managing the offshore commissioning, Smith finds pleasure in traveling or returning home to Albert Lea for visits with the family.

Shane Watts, a Minnesota West alumnus, graduated in 2011 and boasts a rich history in Wind Energy spanning continents and a deep-rooted connection to his classmates.

In 2014, he received an assignment in France, residing there for 14 months to test a prototype turbine. His journey continued through different regions of Europe, including Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, where he contributed to offshore windfarm projects, before settling in Rhode Island. Living just a stone’s throw away from the beach, Watts enjoys the coastal lifestyle with his wife, a graduate from the RN nursing program at Minnesota West, and three daughters.

Watts currently serves as an Offshore Operations Manager for GE, overseeing several teams comprising of 3 to 4 members each, working from dawn till dusk. Their schedules typically follow a 3-week on, 3-week off rotation, providing ample time for relaxation or worldly travels. Service leads and technicians under his guidance ensure the upkeep and repair of electrical and mechanical equipment utilized in GE’s wind turbine projects. With technicians spanning a wide age range, from 21 to 55 years old, Wind Energy proves to be a fulfilling and diverse career choice for all involved.

Hailing from Minnesota himself, Watts attributes his success in the Wind Energy field to the solid foundation laid by his education at Minnesota West. With a wealth of experience managing numerous teams throughout his career, Watts remains steadfast in his belief that Minnesota West offers the premier program for aspiring wind energy professionals.

Marshall Sims, fueled by a passion for technology and adventure, found his calling in wind energy. After thorough research, Sims enrolled at Minnesota West, drawn by its impressive facilities and experienced faculty. He graduated the same year as Smith in 2016.

Sims grew up surrounded by the wild beauty of Fairbanks, Alaska, where his love for the outdoors and technology blossomed. He embarked on a dynamic career from internships to troubleshooting at wind farms across the Midwest, he honed his skills and climbed the ranks.

In 2023, seeking new challenges, he joined GE’s offshore wind division in Massachusetts. Currently immersed in the intricacies of Vineyard Wind, Sims ensures turbines are primed for action. His days are spent aboard service vessels, conducting software checks and stress tests on these cutting-edge turbines. His journey is a fusion of passion, opportunity, and dedication in the renewable energy sector.

Despite the delays posed by the pandemic, the trio from Minnesota West remain steadfast in their commitment to ensuring a sustainable future. December marked a crucial milestone with the completion of critical testing, technical components, and an offshore substation. In January, the project achieved a significant breakthrough, delivering approximately five megawatts of power from a single turbine. The first five turbines reached full operation in late February, further solidifying the project’s impact on advancing renewable energy on the East Coast.