While it may be true that energy sustainability begins at home, it can get a big boost in the classroom. That’s what Boise State University is hoping to do with help from a three-year, $41,000 per year Department of Energy program that brings wind power education to rural schools.
Called the Wind for Schools program, DOE has tapped six universities around the country to serve as Wind Application Centers.
Boise State, which is Idaho’s only center, will enlist engineering students to venture out to four as-yet-unnamed rural Idaho classrooms each year and construct small 1.9 kilowatt turbines for use in science classes.
The turbines, which will be from 35 to 70 feet tall, are being sold to the university by Southwest Windpower of Flagstaff, Ariz. for a reduced sum of $6,000 each (which will have to be purchased independent of the program). Called the Skystream 3.7, the small turbines don’t generate enough power to operate an entire school, but are typically sold to homeowners who want to offset their normal utility use and reduce power bills.
But Todd Haynes, Boise State’s Wind for Schools coordinator, said the program isn’t necessarily about energy production, it’s about education – both for K-12 students and to raise up a crop of wind power engineers at the college level.
“What this program is addressing is the bottleneck in brainpower, that’s why wind power in the schools is all about education,” Haynes said.
And the education isn’t just technical – Haynes added that by requiring them to handle all the siting and permitting of the turbines, engineering students also learn the ins and outs of interfacing with local government to achieve the expansion of wind power.
“The DOE’s standpoint on this is that we, as engineering schools, do a good job of educating engineering students in the technical aspects of putting up a wind turbine, but by the time they graduate after four years they may never have even heard the words ‘special use permit,’” he said.
According to engineer Gary Seifert of the Idaho National Laboratory (which is a major partner in the Wind for Schools program), the university’s designation as a Wind Application Center comes after seven years of wind power collaboration between Boise State and the lab, and at a time when expansion of renewable energy sources is increasingly important for both environmental and economic reasons.
“It’s one of the few energy producers that is co-existent with all of our land uses in Idaho,” he said. “For example, if I’m a spud farmer or an alfalfa farmer or a sugar beet farmer, for every turbine I put up on an acre of land … I create a revenue stream that is independent of the ups and downs of the markets.
“It becomes one more crop for the farm and the best part is that it doesn’t leave a trash pile,” he added. “It just makes good clean power for everybody else.”
Seifert, who specializes in wind research at INL, was involved in the first Wind for Schools program last August, which installed a small turbine at Skyline High School in Idaho Falls. He said that project was a big success with teachers and students alike, and also helped get the community talking about wind power.
“The Wind for Schools program requires a partnership,” he said. “You have to bring locals into the partnership because your schools don’t have enough resources to do everything.
“What we’re trying to do is get people excited about it rather than just putting up with it,” he added. “If you don’t have local investment, local ownership, they don’t really want to do the project.”
There’s plenty of investment needed, too. With the turbines’ cost at $6,000 each, schools kick in about $1,500 and the sale of carbon offset “green tags” contribute about $2,000. The remaining $2,500 is picked up by state grants or equipment buy-down.
And the Department of Energy requires more than just a community partnership – eight entities must be in on the program, including the target school, a Wind Application Center, a state facilitator (in Idaho’s case that’s Brian Jackson, an independent wind expert), DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab/Wind Powering America, a green tag marketer and sponsoring company, a wind turbine manufacturer, a local utility or electric cooperative and the state energy office.
The reason for including so many government agencies in what, on the surface, could seem to be little more than a fairly expensive science project, is that DOE hopes Wind for Schools will help aid the 20% Wind Energy by 2030 Scenario, an energy plan that calls for wind power accounting for 20 percent of the nation’s power supply by 2030.
According to DOE’s Wind Powering America, the 20 by 30 Scenario estimates that 3 million new wind power positions will need to be created for that goal to be met, and therefore “there is an urgent need for college and universities to train future wind energy practitioners.”
In Idaho, wind power is still far from a main source of electricity – the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports that the state produces only about 1.6 percent of its power from wind – but proponents say it has potential.
The AWEA also reports that Idaho is ranked 17 in the nation for wind capacity, with a potential average power output of 8,290 megawatts. As a comparison, the proposed Idaho Energy Complex, a nuclear/biofuels generation facility in Elmore County, would produce about 1,600 megawatts – an amount that, according the complex’s figures, would supply two-thirds of all the state’s energy needs.
In the meantime, however, Boise State’s Wind for Schools administrators hope the program will help lay the groundwork for future expansion of the resource.
“As Americans we tend to just flip the switch and fail to realize that somewhere, far away, someone is burning coal. We don’t realize it,” Haynes said.