More power: Could Mac get a larger windmill?

By Brian Martucci

Three years ago, with the help of a senior class gift, Macalester agreed to build a windmill that now spins above Olin-Rice. Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. followed suit in 2004, building a giant wind turbine that dwarfs Macalesterƒ?TMs windmill, which generates around 1 percent of the collegeƒ?TMs energy. Today, as high energy prices have contributed to a national emergence of new windmill projects, Macalester is entertaining the possibility of its own giant turbine, which could be built in farmland south of the Cities.

According to High Winds Fund Director Tom Welna, a windmill with these capabilities could become profitable after about a decade, depending on how much of the investment the college is required to shoulder.

Richard Graves ƒ?TM06 is now pushing for a turbine similar to those that three of Macalesterƒ?TMs Midwest peer schoolsƒ?”Carleton, St. Olaf and Grinnellƒ?”have already constructed or plan to construct on plots of land adjoining their rural campuses.

Carletonƒ?TMs turbine was erected in the summer of 2004 and neighboring St. Olaf College expects to construct their own this summer. Grinnellƒ?TMs student newspaper, the Scarlet & Black, reported earlier this semester that the construction of a windmill was pending final approval of the schoolƒ?TMs Board of Trustees.

These turbines, similar to the one Macalester is considering, are about 400 feet tall and have bladespans greater than the length of a Boeing 747. According to Graves, under ideal wind conditions the turbine would produce about 40 percent of the energy the college needs to function. By comparison, the Olin-Rice windmill produces enough electricity to power 100-150 light bulbsƒ?”less than 1 percent of Macalesterƒ?TMs total power consumption.

The Carleton turbine cost $1.8 million, though Welna estimated that Macalesterƒ?TMs could be built for about $1 million.

According to Welna, the possibility of putting up a wind turbine to supply the college with power was not even considered until recently because the operation would have lost money.

Under federal and state law, nonprofit organizations like Macalester are tax-exempt and thus do not stand to benefit from environmental and equipment depreciation tax creditsƒ?”two benefits that have historically made investments in renewable energy profitable for taxable entities.

The college has discussed the possibility of sharing a windmill built outside the Twin Cities with either Carleton or Gustavus Adolphus, according to Director of Facilities Management Mark Dickinson. Under this arrangement, Macalester would either jointly invest in a turbine near Northfield and share the power it produced, or shoulder the entire cost of the turbine and sell the power back to its partner school.

Dickinson said, however, that any plans to collaborate with another institution were still highly conceptual and preliminary.

ƒ?oeI wouldnƒ?TMt want to raise anyoneƒ?TMs expectations,ƒ?? he said. ƒ?oeIt would be premature to comment on any discussions weƒ?TMre having at this time.ƒ??

Graves said his plan, which he calls Community-Based Energy Development (CBED), is more likely to happen, although Welna stressed that it is still just an idea.

CBED would use the tax benefits unavailable to the college to attract private investment in the turbine. Ideally, the college would pay as little as 1 percent of the turbineƒ?TMs total construction cost on the condition that the private investors receive all revenues for the first decade of its existence.

After 10 years, all future revenues and responsibilities for the windmillƒ?TMs upkeep would transfer to the college.

The electricity produced by the turbine would be sold to Xcel Energy Corp., which owns the Southern Minnesota and Twin Cities energy infrastructure, and pumped into the local power grid. The college would effectively become a small-scale wholesaler of renewable energy.

ƒ?oeWe want to build a utility-scale 2 megawatt wind turbine to offset a significant portion of our energy consumption and we want to do it in a cost-effective manner,ƒ?? Graves said.

Funding the collegeƒ?TMs portion of the investment is still an issue, however, Welna said.

ƒ?oeUnfortunately, the High Winds Fundƒ?TMs investments are restricted to the immediate neighborhood,ƒ?? Welna said.

The fund owns a number of businesses along the south side of Grand Avenue to the west of campus and several houses along Summit Avenue.

Graves hopes to persuade Macalester College Student Government to contribute the money for the collegeƒ?TMs share of the project, the size of which would vary considerably depending on how many private investors were interested.

Members of the administration sounded a note of caution, however.

ƒ?oeI donƒ?TMt know enough [about the specifics of the proposal] to comment at this point,ƒ?? said Treasurer David Wheaton, adding that he would be meeting with proponents of the plan later this week.

Regardless, Graves is optimistic that CBED could become a profitableƒ?”not just socially consciousƒ?”venture for the college. He hopes to use revenues from the project to create a $100,000 endowment, to be called the Clean Energy Revolving Fund (CERF), which would invest in future renewable energy and environmentally friendly projects both on campus and in the Cities.

ƒ?oeOur ultimate goal is to make CERF a sort of foundation that hears proposals from students and others for sustainability projects and awards grants to those that show promise,ƒ?? he said.

Midwestern colleges seem to be jumping on the wind energy bandwagon for several reasons: recent technological advances which have made small-scale wind operations profitable, the rapidly rising price of crude oil, and simple geography. Carletonƒ?TMs facilities management website notes that ƒ?oethe mid-continent portion of the United States is blessed with an abundance of wind energyƒ?? and claims that the production cost of one kilowatt-hour of wind power dropped from 40 cents in 1980 to 4 cents in 2005.

According to oilenergy.com, the price of crude oil more than tripled within the same period.

This potentially profitable, environmentally-friendly wind turbine may represent one instance in which the often-competing interests of idealistic students and pragmatic members of the administration find some common ground.

ƒ?oeHistorically, colleges and universities have been at the forefront of liberal causes and environmentally-friendly projects,ƒ?? Welna said.

Graves agreed. ƒ?oeWeƒ?TMre beginning to realize that conventional power is not going to be part of the solution to our energy problems in the future, and this project is our contribution to that future,ƒ?? he said.

Correction added (3/25/06):

The original article said that St. Olaf College has a fully functioning windmill. Their turbine did not become functional in 2005, as the article stated, but rather is expected to be installed this summer.