June 07, 2007

SIUC may study wind turbine for power generation

by Tim Crosby


CARBONDALE, Ill. — Officials at Southern Illinois University Carbondale are studying a proposal to construct a 500-foot-tall wind turbine on the west side of the campus that could provide up to 15 percent of SIUC's electric power needs.

The SIU Board of Trustees will learn about the proposal during its June 14 meeting on the SIUC campus. Philip S. Gatton, director of Plant and Service Operations at SIUC, is asking the board to approve a study, which will examine the economic feasibility of the project.

State grants totaling $55,000 from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will fund the study, which will investigate everything from wind speeds to construction and maintenance costs to the cost associated with tying the wind-driven turbine into the campus' electrical grid system, Gatton said. With wind turbine technology improving and the cost of traditional fossil fuel-generated power on the rise, he expects the study will show advantages to pursuing the project.

"Just a few years ago this might not have been worthwhile. But better turbines and high utility costs are changing that," Gatton said. "Personally, I think we're going to see a lot more wind energy and other renewable, sustainable energy projects in the near future everywhere."

While unique in Southern Illinois, the project would not be the first at state universities. Illinois State University currently has wind turbines and the University of Illinois is pursuing one, Gatton said. Universities tend to take the lead when new technologies require proving grounds, he said, and SIUC has been especially active in energy conservation efforts.

"From a University standpoint, we should look at ourselves as leaders that exemplify and test new technologies," Gatton said. "We can give other local communities something to look at and see how it works before they invest in it.

"It will be a big deal if we can do it," he said.

"Big" is an appropriate description.

Officials foresee the concrete and steel tower supporting the windmill and turbine stretching 300 feet into the sky from its base, located near the University farms west of the McLafferty Annex on the campus' west side. The blades of the mill would span 300 to 400 feet from tip to tip, further increasing the overall height of the structure to about 500 feet.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, by comparison, is 630 feet tall.

The turbine officials are eyeballing could generate 2.5 megawatts, which would make it one of the biggest in the country, Gatton said. The University's peak use is about 19 megawatts and officials think the turbine could provide about 15 percent of that, creating a substantial savings while protecting the environment.

Southern Illinois is an ideal location to test the improving technology, Gatton said, precisely because wind speeds are lower in the area.

"It's a marginal area for wind speed, so if it can work here we can show it will work in many other places," Gatton said. "The turbines today are far more efficient at lower wind speeds, they cost less and require less maintenance." Such specialized turbines, built mainly in Switzerland and Germany, also require very little maintenance during the first 20 years of their life, he said.

If the study bears out the economic feasibility of the project, officials estimate it will cost between $5 million and $6 million to construct the facility. But Gatton wants to examine a performance contract arrangement with a contractor whereby it would own the facility and lease it back to the University. In the end, Gatton said the aim is to zero out the actual cost to SIUC through savings in power costs and the use of clean energy grants.

Along with the economic and environmental aesthetics, Gatton also foresees a strong educational aspect to the project. The University's College of Engineering students, for instance, could be heavily involved in the planning and evaluating the project while the facility could also play host to K-12 schoolchildren throughout the region as an example of clean, renewable energy options, engineering and science.

If approved by the board, the study will take one year to complete. If things fall into place after that, the facility would take 18 to 24 months to build, Gatton estimated.

"We want to make sure we know what all the costs are first," Gatton said. "It's an unusual project, but would pique a lot of people's interest if we're successful."