In a cornfield within eyesight of Carleton College's (Minn.) campus stands a towering sleek, stark-white structure that looks Like the Mercedes-Benz logo. But it's hardly an advertisement for the luxury car brand. Rather, it's a 240-foot-tall wind turbine designed to produce up to 1,650 kilowatts of energy--enough to meet the yearly electricity needs of 600 homes or 40 percent of the university.
Energy derived from wind is considered clean and "green" because its source is inexhaustible and nonpolluting. While the energy generated from the turbine is not directly used to power the college, it does flow directly into the electrical grid of Northfield, Minn., where the college is located. From there it is sold and used locally.
"The Iraq war brings home that we should be more sufficient fuel-wise," says Richard Strong, Carleton's director of facilities. "The turbine is a way for Carleton to take responsibility for its energy production and feel that it is contributing to the nation's conservation efforts."
Blowin' in the Wind
Carleton pursued the wind turbine project after being approached by a local wind advocacy group in 2002. But students also influenced this decision. For the last two years, the student government had been lobbying for cleaner energy sources. They had actually agreed to pay higher student fees to offset the expected higher costs of producing green energy. This option was explored but it proved too costly for the college. Buying just 10 percent of green energy from the college's utility company, Xcel, would have cost them a premium of about $30,000 a year, Strong says.
"We had to ask ourselves: What would be the value of that stream of payment over time? It just seemed more cost effective to finance a wind turbine, produce our own green energy and then sell it back to the utility," he says. Both parties benefit from this agreement. Carleton sells 100 percent of its green energy to Xcel for 3.3 cents a kilowatt and Xcel sells its energy to Carleton at 5 cents a kilowatt. Unfortunately, the school cannot directly use the energy generated from its turbine because it is located too far from campus. Turbines built in the future--Carleton is currently considering building two more--will hopefully have this interconnectivity, Strong says.
But Carleton isn't getting rich off of Xcel's payments. In fact, the $1.8 million turbine is only slightly profitable if not break-even right now. But thanks to the state of Minnesota, the college receives a production credit of 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for a 10-year period. The Minnesota Department of Commerce has also chipped in by bestowing the college a $150,000 grant.
Over the next 20 years, the predicted life span of the turbine, Strong predicts that the college will earn anywhere from $250,000 to $750,000. But he also says it will take 10 to 12 years to pay back costs. "The economics here were important. Without proving that this could be a break-even operation, the trustees would not have supported this," Strong explains.
Benefits of Wind Energy
Nestled in the heart of the abundantly windy Midwest, Carleton was a fitting candidate for a wind energy solution. On a wind scale of 1 to 7 that measures wind speed distribution, Northfield is considered a 4. "We've acknowledged that in this part of the world it's possible to use wind energy," Strong says. "We want to make an example of our turbine to encourage others in the area to explore this option." Several IHEs from western Minnesota to Iowa to North Dakota have already expressed interest in mirroring Carleton's progressive ways. St. Olaf College, Located nearby, has already picked a site for its new turbine, and Gustavus Adolphus College, just a few hours away, has already started fundraising for the two turbines it would like to construct.
This wind turbine fever is partly due to the recent advances in wind power …