The Gustavian Weekly

A gusty debate | The Gustavian Weekly

By Jake Seamans Editor-in-Chief | September 25, 2009 | News

As Gustavus continues to talk about building a wind turbine, the Nicollet County Board has intervened

Gustavus has been in the market for wind turbines since December 2007, but a county ordinance has halted the project. MCT Campus.

Gustavus has been in the market for wind turbines since December 2007, but a county ordinance has halted the project. MCT Campus.

After eight years of research, fundraising and talk, Gustavus is finally prepared to start building one or two wind turbines. However, the project has been brought to a standstill by the Nicollet County Board of Commissioners, who passed an ordinance making it nearly impossible for the College to build a turbine on campus.

Because of this ordinance and a previous moratorium on approving wind-power projects, the Gustavus Board of Trustees delayed consideration of the wind turbine project until its October meeting.
Over concerns about noise pollution, shadows from the turbines and the safety of those living nearby, the Board of Commissioners passed the Wind Energy Conversion Systems (WECS) Ordinance, which bans wind turbines from being built within a half mile of any dwelling and requires a noise pollution study before work can be started.

The ordinance effectively bans a wind turbine from being built on campus. This has generated a strong response from people involved in the project and from St. Peter residents.

The Ordinance

At their Aug. 11, 2009 meeting, the Nicollet County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance establishing rules for building wind turbines in the County. The ordinance was a product of the WECS committee, which was formed last year to study issues regarding wind energy projects and to establish a set of rules for the county.

At the same time, the County Board placed a one-year moratorium on approving any wind energy projects. That moratorium was lifted with the passage of the new ordinance.

“The committee was looking at a lot of issues that other agencies haven’t dealt with very well,” Commissioner James Stenson said, who represents Gustavus’ district.

The ordinance’s rules about noise and shadow studies, distinguishing between the size of projects and proximity to dwellings. This rule would keep a turbine project from being built on campus, and has generated backlash within the Gustavus community.

“I think it is a mistake environmentally and economically, and it is an obstacle to the kind of clean energy development we—as citizens and a county—need to adopt. A setback rule is necessary but one half mile is excessive,” Jim Dontje said, director of the Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation.

According to Stenson, the ordinance was prompted by a move in New Ulm to build a wind turbine project in the western part of the county. That project caused controversy among residents in the area, and the County Board moved to establish a set of rules to deal with the problems there.

According to those involved in the project, if the County Board were to approve of the Gustavus wind turbine project immediately and if the turbines were available, than Gustavus could boast a turbine before the end of the year.

“If the zoning were favorably resolved, it then becomes a matter of turbine availability. We are currently in a far better economic climate for purchasing one than any time in the past three or four years, but it still depends on what is available when we are able to go. I think six months would be possible if everything lines up well. It could also be well more than a year,” said Director of Physical Plant Warren Wunderlich.

The Project

The turbine project has been stalled over the last several years due to a limited supply of turbines available to Gustavus. Due to the economic recession, turbine orders have slowed and Gustavus was able to place an order.

Gustavus is looking at building either one or two turbines, depending on availability and cost. According to Ken Westphal, vice president for business and finance, the turbine would cost between $3.1 and $3.4 million for one turbine and between $6.1 and $6.4 million for two.

According to Westphal, there are a number of benefits for the college. “The benefit of a wind turbine is to reduce the College’s carbon footprint and reduce the high cost of electricity that Gustauvs pays,” Westphal said.

A turbine could also allow Gustavus to make some significant steps towards goals set for the College, particularly the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, an initiative for colleges and universities to make significant steps towards environmental sustainability. The agreement was signed by former Gustavus President Jim Peterson in Sept. 2007.

“This [project] would also provide significant progress on our efforts to become carbon neutral, relative to the ‘President’s Climate Commitment,’” said Wunderlich. “Perhaps most importantly, it would be a visible demonstration of our commitment to environmental sustainability. This … has greater impact if the turbine is on campus, or at least close enough to see from campus, and if we can use the power directly.”

However, some have called into question both the College’s commitment to the project and the reasons the College wants to build a wind turbine.

“Why does Gustavus want [a wind turbine]? To me the obvious answer is, and though it might not be the right one, is that St. Olaf and Carleton have one, so they decided they should get one too. So, it’s kinda keeping up with Joneses. Or they might say it is for academic reasons, to educate students about wind energy,” Stenson said. “Really, the big thing is can the college save money by generating it from wind energy rather than buying it from the city, which generates [their energy] mostly from coal fired plants? I think this should be the reason for building one.”

Some have also questioned whether the Gustavus Board of Trustees are committed to building the project.

“The Trustees had not made a commitment before the county enacted the ordinance in August. There is still some uncertainty about their commitment. We will not be able to test our ability to work with the new county ordinance by applying for a variance without a ‘go ahead’ from the Trustees to try,” Dontje said.