A La Crosse-based technical college’s new hydro power plant has opened up opportunities for the school to teach students about hydroelectric generation — coursework that would be the first of its kind in the Upper Midwest.
The Angelo Dam, located on the La Crosse River near the city of Sparta, first generated energy in 1898 and produced power until 1969. Western Technical College purchased the dam in 2010 and decided to bring the power station back online. The Angelo Dam Hydro Power Station has now been generating electricity for about a year, making Western one of the only colleges in the U.S. to own and operate a hydro power plant.
The facility has served as a living laboratory for students studying electronics, who have been monitoring both the plant and the river. By next spring, the college hopes to begin offering classes in hydroelectric generation.
Western Technical College President Lee Rasch said the school wants to create a renewable energy certificate, and eventually, a program for students looking to enter the industry.
"And that’ll be probably helping develop some continuing education opportunities for people who are working in hydro in Wisconsin … It has a chance to instill some economic development growth in this aspect of alternative energy," he said.
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Rasch said the program could attract people from all over the country.
In the meantime, businesses are already looking to partner with the school on creating new power stations across the region and new turbine designs. Electronics instructor Jon Burman said this could help the industry expand, since there are hundreds of dams in Wisconsin not producing any energy.
"We retrofitted this dam to produce power. You take another 150 of those to produce power, you’re putting a lot of power back on the grid," said Burman.
Western sells the electricity it generates through the Angelo Dam back to Xcel Energy. For the period between July 2014 and April 2015, Xcel has paid Western $65,269. The Angelo Dam Hydro Power Station cost about $4 million, and college officials say it could take 20 to 30 years to pay off.
Western is generating enough power to offset its six regional campuses outside of La Crosse: Sparta, Black River Falls, Independence, Mauston, Tomah and Viroqua.