BLAIR, Neb. — A Vermont man planning to start what he hopes will become a national energy-efficiency institute intends to sign a purchase agreement this week to acquire the now-defunct Dana College.
Allan E. Baer of Chelsea, Vt., who has spent more than 30 years as a renewable energy contractor, said he wants to begin an institute to train people to fill jobs in energy-related fields. Baer said the demand for energy efficiency experts has been growing since the U.S. Department of Energy announced a goal of reducing energy consumption in this country by 25 percent no later than the end of 2017.
The name of the school Baer expects to lead will be the Renewable Nations Institute at Dana College. He will be in town this week and said he expects to buy the campus for the $5.9 million asking price, using a short-term loan negotiated through a Denver financial group.
The institute's first students will be graduate students who are enrolled at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., but who will take a two-year program of study on the Blair campus. Baer hopes the institute will later expand its affiliations to degree programs offered at Nebraska-based colleges and universities.
"Students will complete a 10-day residency at Goddard before coming out to the institute," Baer said. "We will fast-track reaccreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, with the goal of our campus being a fully accredited academic institution within five years."
The institute will offer year-round classes, with a student typically completing a program in four semesters. The two-year programs to be offered by the institute will include energy and environmental economics; clean energy technologies; environmental impact studies; global energy and climate policy; and geospatial mapping. (Geospatial mapping is the merging of cartography, statistical analysis and database technology. The term describes any information system that integrates, stores, edits, analyzes, shares and displays geographic information for decision making.)
When a program is successfully completed, the institute will provide Goddard — and, later, other affiliated schools — with a certificate verifying the student's accomplishment. The affiliated schools are then responsible for granting a degree.
"For example, someone seeking to obtain an MBA from Goddard may take our energy-related financial services program," Baer said. "Then they might go to work for a bank that needs someone trained in that field."
Baer said tuition will be about $7,200 per semester, and he expects there to "eventually be around 400 students" on campus. (Dana College had approximately 550 students at the time it closed.)
The institute is applying to be part of the federal government's work-study program.
Students enrolled in the work-study program may apply for jobs on or off campus. A federal work-study school must provide jobs for students that complement and reinforce their educational program.
The faculty will include a mix of full-time and part-time members, including people currently working in the energy field such as utilities. Baer said within four years he expects to employ 70 to 75 faculty members and 225 people overall.
"We will move slowly at first because I don't want to spend too much money too fast and end up failing," Baer said. "You won't see 400 students on campus all at once this fall."
Blair Mayor Jim Realph is delighted that the campus is being sold to "someone who wants to keep it an educational facility." The mayor said he has been impressed with the resources Baer has brought to the project.
"We're very pleased with what we have seen and especially happy that it's still going to be a place of learning," Realph said. "It now appears that we will start seeing some of the jobs we lost coming back to the community."
An official with B2 Environmental Inc., an Omaha-based consulting firm for a variety of industries, said students with the training the institute plans could be in high demand.
"There is a lot of work in our area that students in the energy and environmental fields could do," said Deb Ash, who specializes in business development for B2 Environmental. "Sometimes we have a hard time finding people to do the jobs, and I could see how it would be very beneficial for these students to work under trained personnel."
Baer said he will heavily recruit community colleges for students. Students will be expected to work 20 hours at an internship and spend 30 hours on coursework each week.
"The institute's work-college model will permit students to earn while they learn," Baer said.
He said he will model the institute's internships after the work being done by Industrial Assessment Centers sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy at some of the country's major engineering schools, such as Texas A&M and Iowa State University.
Students from Industrial Assessment Centers study small companies and make recommendations for implementing changes that save power and money. Studies show that companies typically implement about 51 percent of the recommendations made by the engineering students.
"We will be modeled on the Industrial Assessment Centers . but we intend to expand that concept to a nonprofit that gets paid for its economic development activities," Baer said. "It's not viable for large companies like Honeywell to provide (energy) assessments for small industrial or commercial firms, but we can."
Baer said his institute would earn money by completing performance-based energy services contracts for smaller companies, by arranging financing and by finding contractors to implement the energy-saving recommendations it makes.
He will ask the Blair City Council to allow the institute to sell industrial bonds in order to raise money for renovations. The council voted 7-1 last month to tentatively approve the sale of up to $25 million in bonds.
Blair City Administrator Rod Storm said the community "wouldn't be on the hook" financially if the council gives final approval for bond sales. The investor buying the bond makes the loan and the company reaping the benefits assumes the risk.
Baer said the September endorsement of the institute's plans by the Clinton Global Initiative gave him the green light to approach institutions that support nonprofit organizations. He will be in Washington, D.C., at the end of the month to formally announce the start of the school, at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative University.
The Clinton group doesn't make financial grants but did spend seven months reviewing the plans for the institute before giving its endorsement, according to spokeswoman Shannon Newberry.
The endorsement is a "commitment to action," Baer said. "Once you are vetted by the Clinton Global Initiative, then you have the key to approaching committed funders."
Baer is a former instructor of literature at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., the school where he earned his undergraduate degree in education in 1975. He taught "off and on for about 10 years" while obtaining an advanced degree in sociology ecology from Goddard College.
Baer currently is president of an alternative energy nonprofit called SolarQuest. He began his career as a licensed general contractor in California in 1977, specializing in solar energy, and also worked as a vocational instructor in construction technology.
From 1991 to 1996 he was president of NuSun Corp., a company that developed and constructed energy-efficiency projects for small commercial facilities, including schools.
Perhaps Baer's crowning achievement in 31 years of working with renewable energy came when he directed student participation of an eight-year United Nations project that brought renewable electricity to the Galapagos Islands.
Loren Kallevig, president of an energy monitoring company in Santa Cruz, Calif., worked with Baer on the Galapagos project. Kallevig said Baer has "a real passion" for working with students.
"I think Allan would be quite good working on something like this," Kallevig said. "I know that he has been successful in the energy retrofit field."
Ken Curry, a vice president with the Nebraska Public Power District, said there already is a need for energy-efficient personnel. Some large companies have full-time energy managers, he said, but the institute could provide a valuable service for small entities.
"Energy efficiency will continue to grow," Curry said. "There's no doubt about that."
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