Winds of change: turbines come to campus

<em>Photo submitted</em>
Photo submitted

Physics students at Gustavus have been studying wind data for many years with the hope that Gustavus will eventually get a wind turbine to produce electricity for the campus. In recent months, progress was made on the project. The school received bids to put up wind turbines and is looking to move forward with the project soon.

According to Professor of Physics Chuck Chuck Niederriter, the earliest possible time that wind turbines could appear on campus would be the very end of this year.

Trouble securing a contract

While the college has been actively looking to purchase wind turbines since Dec. 2007, it has had trouble getting a company to sell the college just one or two wind turbines.
When Gustavus was first looking to purchase a turbine, there were many companies getting into the business, buying turbines.

“We were coming up toward the end of the cycle with the Federal Production Tax Credit. Companies realized that if they could get a turbine project on the ground and running before the end of … December [2008], then they would be guaranteed the Federal Production Tax Credit for ten years,” said Niederriter. “People were trying desperately to get these turbines up. The companies basically said, ‘Well, we’re not interested in talking to you when we can sell fifty at a time or one hundred at a time.’”

The companies said to get back to them in a year or two, and that’s just what Gustavus did.

Some success

“One of the silver linings, if there is one in the [current] financial situation, is that … companies that have other businesses like John Deere or Edison Capitol … had to stop investing heavily [in wind turbines]. So, all of the sudden now certain companies are willing to talk to us,” said Niederriter.

Gustavus physics students recently had the opportunity to meet with vendors. In February, Gustavus met with one representative that it found through a member of the Board of Trustees. Gustavus received a bid offer from that company a couple of weeks ago.
“[The representative] came down, we talked and they made a bid, and it’s like, ‘We want to sell you two turbines right now,’” said Niederriter.

“Things have changed. I think we have a little window of opportunity here,” said Niederriter.
Before the turbines can appear on campus, Gustavus will have to apply for a conditional use permit, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permit and have a site determination completed, which could take months.

Some specifics

According to Niederriter, Gustavus is set on purchasing one wind turbine and is considering purchasing a second.

“The reason for two is because … on many days it would cover most of the electricity use on campus. About seventy percent of the time we would produce less electricity than we would use … but thirty percent of the time we would produce more and would have some to sell,” said Niederriter.

“I think it’s a great idea. I think if the school can make money, that could free up money for scholarships,” said Katie Schenfeld, Sophomore Health Fitness and Management.

“The [cost of] GE turbine[s] is $5.2 million dollars for two. What goes on top of that is the cost of erection, the foundation and all of the other stuff. Our … highest estimates are adding about $900,000 [for those costs],” said Niederriter.

Niederriter said that there would be additional upkeep costs associated with the turbine, which will likely be in the neighborhood of $40,000 per year. He also said that a turbine has a lifespan of at least twenty years.

According to Niederriter, one or both of the turbines will likely be placed on the north end of the eighty-acre field behind campus, a location that is set back from roads, buildings and trails.

The way the turbine will appear is a concern for some. “The cell, or the hub, would be [about] eighty meters high, depending on machines,” said Niederriter.

Many on campus believe that the Chapel should remain the highest point on campus. “[The college is] looking at places they can put [the turbine] where it doesn’t take away from the aesthetics,” said First-year Environmental Studies and Music Performance Major Brit Barkholtz, who is also a member of the Gustavus Greens.

“I have always thought it would be a good idea. Aside from the aesthetics, it seems like there are no negatives,” said Sophomore Biology Major Justin VerMeer.

Environmental impact and reduction

According to Niederriter, the college has reduced its energy use over the past couple of years. Wind turbines could potentially have a large impact on the college’s environmental footprint.
“It’s great that we are reducing, but if we want to start seeing cost reduction … we need to be reducing more,” said Barkholtz.

“Because of the rising cost of energy usage, the increase in cost is greater than our decrease in use. Even though we are using slightly less energy than [in] previous years, our costs … [are] still going up,” said Barkholtz.

“When you look at those numbers, it becomes a huge motivation to try and do your part when you realize how much impact we are really making,” said Barkholtz.

Tracking the data

Planning for the addition of a wind turbine has been a long process. As soon as Gustavus began considering the idea, physics students began collecting campus wind data.
“In October 2003, we had a 50 meter wind monitoring tower put up. Before we got the 50 meter one, we put up five … 10 meter [wind monitoring towers]. We used those to monitor the wind … in six different locations,” said Niederriter.

“One of the things that we were able to do because we could get the data … from the city about our consumption … is that we could actually compare how much electricity we [would] make and how much we would consume. All of that can go into a financial model, and then you can decide whether it is feasible,” said Niederriter.

Agreements with the City of St. Peter and the power company

Gustavus also consulted with its current electricity vendor to ensure that it would not break any agreements.

“The city is a member of the consortium SMMPA [Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency.] … We buy our electricity from the city, and the city buys their electricity from SMMPA,” said Niederriter.

“We had to negotiate with the city to be able to essentially produce electricity that we would consume on our own, and they wouldn’t change the rates or the rate structure they charged us for electricity. They agreed to that. At the same time, we got SMMPA to agree to purchase any excess that we have,” said Niederriter.

What others are doing

Other area colleges are already using wind turbines. St. Olaf College and Carleton College have their own wind turbines. Gustavus could potentially outdo its MIAC competitors, each with one turbine, by putting up two turbines.

In addition, Gustavus has the opportunity to use the electricity it produces, something Carleton does not currently do.

“Carleton decided [it] would put [the turbine] out of town. It made it easier to get it put up, but all they do is sell electricity to the electric company,” said Niederriter.

According to Niederriter, Carleton is considering putting up a second turbine on campus. This would allow the college to consume the electricity it produces, much like Gustavus plans to do.

“With money and placement, it is a long process. Things are finally coming together, and it’s going to be very good,” said Barkholtz.

Many students on campus are pleased to hear that a wind turbine will finally come to campus.“To finally see that coming together is really excellent. It’s such a big step towards becoming energy independent,” said Haven Davis, a junior environmental studies and English major and co-president of the Gustavus Greens.

For more information on this project see To view current campus energy usage, updated automatically several times each day, visit