Working With the Wind

Wind power is nothing new. People have been harnessing the wind to power ships, pump water, and grind grains for thousands of years. Now, however, America’s colleges and universities are increasingly moving to integrate wind power into the very fabric of their institutional cultures. They are embracing the wind to reduce operating costs, lower carbon emissions, support local economies, and help prepare their graduates for a new world that demands incorporating sustainability into their business and personal lives.

The trend to wind power on campuses across the country is clearly seen among the signatories of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), an agreement between nearly 700 colleges and universities to promote sustainability through teaching and action. More than 30 of these institutions — from the University of Maine at Presque Isle to the University of Maryland Baltimore County and beyond — have integrated wind power into their alternative energy portfolio.

Admittedly, not every campus is suited to a wind program. Simply put: wind and space are required to succeed. A strong commitment from the institution’s president or chancellor’s office also is critical to generating wide-ranging support and maintaining the institutional fortitude necessary to carry a project for the months and years from concept to going online.

Out on Cape Cod
The Massachusetts Maritime Academy on Cape Cod is a perfect example. Located at the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal that opens on to breezy Buzzards Bay, the academy has been never short on wind. Its engineering, math, science, and environmental-centric studies also made it an ideal institution to host a turbine. Academy Commandant and President Admiral Richard Gurnon helped supply the rest when he decided that simply offering classroom instructions on energy systems and environmental protection wasn’t enough. Cadets needed to see the impact and development of wind power up close.

This vision lead to a multiyear effort to explore the feasibility of installing a turbine, securing almost $1.5M in project funding, building community support, and developing an interconnection agreement with the local utility before eventually installing a Vestas 660kW turbine in 2006.

The payback has been significant. Cadets now receive hands-on training and deeper insights on energy systems. The turbine also now accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the Academy’s electrical needs, providing an annual savings of approximately $175,000.

“This turbine is a money machine,” Gurnon said in 2006. “Every time the wind blows, we can invest that savings in more renewal energy.”

Inland in Massachusetts
Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, MA, also successfully met the challenges involved in integrating wind power. As a result, the college now generates virtually all the energy it needs, while also producing additional revenue by returning surplus energy to the grid and selling renewal energy certificates (RECs).

Completed in 2011, Mount Wachusett needed six years and a combination of $9M in Department of Energy grants and low-interest energy bonds to bring its two Vestas 1.65MW turbines online. The journey included an extensive feasibility study and a federal environmental report on the potential impact of the turbines on birds, bats, visual stimulation, sound, and shadow flicker. The College also had to develop an intricate interconnection agreement with the local utility and launch a full court press to build public support before securing all the necessary federal, state, and local permits.

“The easiest part of the project was probably the construction phase,” notes Edward Terceiro, the resident engineer on the project and the College’s executive vice president emeritus. “That was very straightforward.”

The returns for Mount Wachusett have been outstanding. The project also fits into the College’s historic commitment to support alternative energy and sustainability through conservation, education, and institutional support. In the past decade, this commitment has seen Mount Wachusett cut its electrical energy consumption almost in half, to approximately 5,000,000 kWh annually.

The school’s two turbines now provide in excess of 100 percent of the College’s electrical needs, making Mount Wachusett virtually carbon neutral. Surplus energy and the sale of the RECs provide an additional $265,000 in annual revenue beyond the debt service on the bonds.

Reaching the Upper Midwest
Lakeshore Technical College (LTC) in Wisconsin is equally committed to wind power, hosting four different types of turbines on its Cleveland campus. They generate 170,000 kWh of power annually for the College, which offers technical education programs and associate degrees to more than 4,500 students in more than 60 programs.

Michelle Gibbs, Next Generation Energy coordinator, explains that the importance of the turbines goes beyond energy to providing training and educational opportunities for students in LTC’s growing Wind Energy Technology program.

“It gives them the chance to get hands-on experience working with different turbines under all sorts of conditions,” she says. “It is exactly the type of situations they’ll face in their professional lives.”

Focus on Energy, a consortium of Wisconsin’s public utilities and other state energy organizations, apparently agrees with the importance of producing qualified graduates. Last year, the group supplied LTC with a $158,000 grant to fund three of the training turbines.

This power play by colleges and universities will only grow as the process for bringing turbines online is streamlined. The opportunity is too great to pass up, especially if an institution has the vision, space, and wind. 

Dr. Anthony Cortese is president of Second Nature, the lead supporting organization of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.