The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Mac's wind turbine generates more hype than energy

By Diego Ruiz

It’s a “demonstration turbine,” a “piece of lab equipment,” a “symbol.”But there’s one thing Macalester’s 90-feet wind turbine is not: a major source of energy on campus.

When it’s functioning, the turbine typically produces about 1,200 kilowatt-hours in a year, according to data on the Sustainability office’s website. That’s just .01 percent of the electricity used every year at Macalester-$88 of the college’s $2.3 million energy budget.

And that’s when the turbine is working. Recently, it hasn’t been.

According to the Facilities office, an August 2009 lightning strike fried the turbine’s inverter, and the repair cost $5,000. As of this week, the turbine is down again, for unknown reasons. The cost of repairs will not be paid back for by its meager energy production.

Its presence demonstrates more about Macalester’s green values and image than the college’s progress toward finding ways to produce renewable energy for the campus. Yet Macalester faculty and staff say it still has symbolic and educational importance.

The $36,000 turbine was donated to the college by Xcel Energy, and the 2003 senior class gift paid for the $15,000 installation cost. It was the first turbine to be installed in St. Paul.

“It’s seen as a symbol of a commitment to sustainability,” said Suzanne Savanick Hansen, Macalester’s Sustainability Manager.

Hansen said she was happy that the turbine was repaired after it was struck by lightning in 2009.

“We didn’t want to have just a pinwheel spinning up there,” Hansen said. She said the turbine was a part of sustainability tours of campus, and she frequently got questions about it from the wider community.

Hansen also said it was an important part of educational efforts at Macalester.

“If you think of lab equipment you would use in a class, you could easily spend $5,000,” Hansen said. “The biggest advantage of having it here is we can bring students over here and say, ‘This is how wind energy works.'”

Physics professor Jim Doyle is one of the professors who regularly makes use of the wind turbine in his Science of Renewable Energy class.

For students, it often illustrates the impracticality of producing wind power in urban areas. They find that its capacity factor-the amount of power the turbine does produce divided by the amount it could-is around 1.5 percent. (A well-placed turbine in a rural wind farm typically has a 30-40 percent capacity factor.)

Doyle said the turbine produces so little energy because “it’s just not in a good location for generating wind.

“There’s a reason you don’t see wind farms in the middle of cities,” said Doyle.

City buildings cause turbulence, so wind blows in different directions, decreasing the effectiveness of the wind turbine. The turbine would produce more energy if it was taller, but city building codes restrict its height to 90 feet due to safety reasons.

“It’s an educational tool, it’s a nice symbol, it serves a purpose,” Doyle said. “But it doesn’t do much.”

For that reason, Doyle said the college would not contemplate putting up a second turbine.

This logic is in line with Macalester’s sustainability plan, which emphasizes reducing energy use through efficiency before generating renewable energy on campus.It is likely to remain until it wears out or becomes too expensive to repair.

For now, the turbine remains one of the most visible parts of sustainability efforts on campus.

Roopali Phadke, a professor of environmental studies at Macalester who researches the social effects of wind power, said she had personal experience with the power of the symbolism of Macalester’s wind turbine.

During her job interview at Macalester in 2004, she was taken into the back parking lot in Olin-Rice and “[the turbine] was the first thing I saw,” Phadke said. “I thought, maybe it was a sign. I knew my office would be overlooking this turbine.”

However, as Phadke learned more about it, she started to feel more conflicted.

“It’s a great symbol, for many of us it espouses our values, but it’s not what you want other people to do. You don’t want people to be investing in expensive turbines in urban areas,” said Phadke. “No one in their right mind would put money into a location like this.”

Despite its low energy production, Phadke said she still supported repairing it.

“It needs to work for many reasons, including the integrity of how we promote it,” she said. “It’s a really empty promise if it doesn’t even work.”

For this reason, Hansen said she hopes the turbine gets repaired-again-soon.

“If it ends up being outrageously expensive and we can’t get it fixed, then we’ll have other decisions to make,” Hansen said.

Mark Dickinson, the director of Facilities, said he hopes that the outside firm that services the turbine solves the problem soon.

“I’m frustrated about it and want to get it fixed,” Dickinson said. “It’s the principle.

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