Electricity From the Wind...
A New Lesson for Schools
“School budgets are getting tighter,” says Jim Tirevold, Spirit Lake School District director of buildings and grounds. “And energy costs are going up.”
But Spirit Lake found a solution that not only creates steady revenue but also offers a hands-on educational opportunity to the school’s students and provides clean energy for the community. The solution for this rural school in Iowa literally was blowing in the wind.
Tirevold tells the story that has become something of a legend. A school board member was watching his son play flag football. He turned to the superintendent, who was sitting with him on that windy day. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do something with this?” he asked.
The original turbine was such a success that the district pursued a second, larger turbine. The new 750-kilowatt turbine produces six times as much electricity as the first machine and is connected to the utility grid.
“The 250-kilowatt turbine takes care of the elementary school,” Tirevold said. “The 750-kilowatt turbine takes care of the high school, middle school, administrative buildings and then some.”
The local utility pays Spirit Lake for the unused energy, and the money that would have paid the utility for electricity pays off the loan. Tirevold calculates that the 750-kilowatt turbine will pay for itself by 2007, just six years after it became operational.
“After that, Spirit Lake will have $140,000 a year — on top of the money saved from the smaller turbine — to spend on education,” he said.
Several other Iowa schools also own wind turbines. The Forest City Community School has a 600-kilowatt turbine financed through a combination of a loan from the Iowa Energy Center’s Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program and a low-interest loan from a local bank.
“When we got started, no grant monies were available for a wind project. We understood we’d have to finance it, so we spent seven or eight months looking at the figures,” says Superintendent Dwight Pierson. “We really felt it could pay for itself and become an asset for the district. At the time, we had one of the only turbines around that was totally financed, all through conventional loans.”
The school received a Federal Renewable Energy Production Incentive of 1.5 cents per kilowatthour. Including the incentive, the turbine has generated $284,000 (more than 4.7 million kilowatthours) worth of electricity between January 1999, when it became operational, and February 2004.
“Installing the turbine was a bold decision for our board to make,” Pierson says, “but its decision was made on good input, and the cost investment penciled out.”
Pierson speaks of the Forest City turbine with pride. “This has been a win-win for our community, a real asset,” he said. “And we actually underestimated how much of an asset it would be.”
Iowa schools aren’t the only ones that save money, reduce emissions and provide students with a real-life opportunity to see wind energy in action. People in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Illinois, Colorado and Michigan have worked to pair wind turbines with schools in their states. Additional projects can be found on Native American and state trust lands. And each of these projects has a different story behind how the community launched the idea and which financial paths it took to make school wind production a reality.
In Colorado, the town of Wray is about to become the first district in the state to make a school wind project a reality. The Wray RD-2 district plans to install a 1.5-1.7 megawatt turbine on a hill south of the city by March of 2005.
Agriculture education teacher Jay Clapper is waiting for a grant, but he’s confident that it will come through. The district hopes to have the turbine erected in Spring 2005.
The turbine will be tied to the municipality’s utility grid, and the school will sell the electricity generated to the city. The turbine will provide approximately one-fourth of the city’s power. Plus, the district will market the project’s “green tags,” which represent the electricity’s environmental or “green” attributes. Green tags can be sold to a third-party buyer who then sells the tags, mostly to urban customers who are willing to pay more for clean energy. Selling the project’s green tags will help the school tap into a growing national market that will generate additional revenue for the project. Between the value of the electricity and the green tags, the Wray district expects to gross about $300,000 per year. This money will help the district enormously.
“Our district went through tremendous budget cuts — nearly one-fifth of our budget — and student enrollment was going down,” Clapper said. “I had always talked about wind and renewable energy in my classes. I said that we should have a wind turbine up on that bluff to offset our costs!” And now, after two and a half years of effort, the district’s hard work is about to pay off. Clapper’s advice: “Don’t quit! It can be a long road, but you can get there.”
Successful school districts seek state and federal incentives, as well as utility support. In the case of the Forest City turbine, Pierson says that a lot depended on having a good contract with the local utility.
“Our contract is very simple: we trade electricity,” he said. “They buy any electricity we don’t use, and we buy any extra electricity the turbine doesn’t provide. They are 100 percent behind us, and that has made all the difference.”
But perhaps the most important thing that school wind projects have in common is saving districts money — money that can be returned to the schools to help bolster revenue and enrich student education. When asked what he would say to someone from a district that is interested in installing a wind project, Tirevold paused and said, “What? You mean you don’t have one yet?”
This article was prepared with information provided by the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Powering America Program. For more information, please visit www.windpoweringamerica.gov