This story was published in The Windy Citizen on March 12, 2008. It was written for a class while Molly was attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
Some Midwestern schools think the answer to higher electricity bills is blowing in the wind.
K-12s, colleges and universities have been putting wind turbines on their campuses since 1993, mainly to combat rising energy prices. But they’re also a learning experience, and those in Illinois are helping meet the state’s renewable-energy goal.
There are between 400 and 500 wind-energy turbines operating in Illinois. They produce between 350 and 699 megawatts of electric power annually, depending, of course, on how the wind blows. More turbines are built each year, but they have yet to provide more than 1 percent of Illinois’ energy needs.
Gabriela Martin, program officer for renewable energy at Chicago-based Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF), said, “If you have 699 megawatts, that’s pretty good. That’s like a coal plant.”
There are no official figures for how many Illinois schools have turbines. However, the success of three schools in Illinois, two in Iowa and one in Michigan, demonstrate that wind energy is both educational and an economic benefit. At one high school, over half its electricity needs are produced by its own turbine. At least two other schools are in the process of exploring turbines.
“The wind market is really crazy right now. It’s like the housing market two-three years ago,” Martin said.
The ICECF has awarded 25 wind feasibility study grants, generally used to determine if sites are windy enough. The majority of these grants – 20 of the 25 – have gone to schools, for a total of $507,000.
Three colleges in the state were awarded turbine installation grants, totaling $1.9 million; three schools were awarded grants that came to $2.5 million.
Turbines have turned heads in the Illinois legislature. Roger Brown, program manager of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, noted a new law: “The Renewable Portfolio Standard requires that a percentage of Illinois’ power or electricity must be generated from renewable energy, that is, 25 percent by 2025. I believe 75 percent of that renewable [energy] must be from wind. There’s an incentive there. It starts out at 2 percent this year. that’s a fairly aggressive situation.”
Though federal and state governments, recognizing that wind power isn’t yet a profitable business, have been working sporadically to make windfarms economically viable – mainly through tax credits – school administrators said the uncertain government policies and lack of commercial viability don’t concern them, since they aren’t commercial operations.
Terry Gutshall is the superintendent of Bureau Valley Community Unit School District, based in Manlius, Ill., 130 miles southwest of Chicago. It’s the first Illinois K-12 school to get a turbine.
“We can see the volatility in the world market,” he said. “We can see what the impact of energy consumption is, and we’re trying to do our part to help our taxpayers out and help renewable energy.”
Bureau Valley’s turbine has been turning since 2005. It can produce 660 kilowatts per year, making it one of the larger residential-scale models. It is 220 feet from the base to the top, with blades 76 feet in length. (When Admiral Richard Byrd made the world’s first flight over the South Pole in 1929, his airplane had a wingspan equal to just one of Bureau Valley’s blades.)
The $1 million turbine provides “well over half, if not two-thirds” of the electricity consumed at Bureau Valley High School, Gutshall said.
“Our net savings are around $20,000. You know, that’s almost a teacher,” he said. “The gross savings were $100,000 and we’re looking at. for sure between $70,000 and $100,000 as far as net savings.”
Spirit Lake Community School District, in Spirit Lake, Iowa, installed its first turbine in 1993. A second followed shortly thereafter. The school board authorized looking at a third last year.
The first turbine cost $239,500. The 250-kw, 140-foot high structure paid for itself in five years. Turbines produced 100 percent of the school’s energy in 2001, but due to construction projects, they supply only about 60 percent of the current need.
The combination of schools and wind turbines is teaching young children about renewable energy, and big kids don’t want to be left behind.
“The students are starting to push the university’s administrators,” said Phil Gatton, the director of plant and service operations at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale.
SIUC is in the feasibility-study stage, deciding if having a turbine makes financial sense.
“We’re in a marginal wind zone here at Southern Illinois, and our hope is that if we can prove that it works here, it’ll pretty well be able to work anywhere in the state,” Gatton said.
The university’s 2,000 acres of farmland on the western part of its campus will be the turbine site, if it’s built. The model being evaluated has a 2.5 megawatt capacity – similar to the large machines used on commercial windfarms – and would rest on a tower 300 feet high.
“We’d be looking at [spending] six and a quarter million dollars,” said SIUC electrical engineer Justin Harell.
SIUC students will vote in April on whether to establish a per-credit-hour fee of up to $10 a semester to be used exclusively for sustainability projects like the wind turbine.
“I think everybody could agree that our reliance on fossil fuels and foreign oil is not a good thing for the country,” Gatton said. “I think investment in renewables, especially when you can prove that they’re cost effective [is] something the university should take a leadership role in.”
Several Illinois K-12 schools are also in the process of getting turbines. At Erie Community Unit School District, a neighbor of Bureau Valley, Superintendent Michael Ryan began examining wind power in 2005.
“I was very concerned about deregulation in January of 2007, and I wanted to be energy independent by that date. So that was really my big motivator and the deregulated market really scared me and I wanted to see if I had an alternative to that and wind energy could be that.”
The school hopes to complete the turbine by June.
“When the pieces of the turbine started arriving last year, I’d bring the students out to the turbine so they could really see the pieces on the ground, because when they get in the air you don’t get that perspective of how big they are. So I went over and had them touch the pieces. Each one of our blades weighs 4,000 pounds and laid out there, it really is something for them to see. I wanted them to get a sense of what the turbine really is and not just something up in the air making electricity,” Ryan said.
The turbines have been successful. “They pretty much run themselves,” Spirit Lake’s facility director, Jim Tirevold, said. However, schools might balk once they get wind of increasing prices and wait times.
“They just can’t make blades fast enough, they can’t build gearboxes fast enough; it’s just amazing,” Martin said. “That has driven the prices up significantly. the economics have been affected adversely for wind just because there’s such a huge demand worldwide, from India to China to the U.S. to Europe. You just can’t get enough wind turbines.”