September 22, 2010

Public forum planned on proposed wind turbine

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A forum at Southern Illinois University Carbondale next week will provide the public with an update on a proposal to build a wind turbine that would meet a portion of the University’s electric power needs.

The public forum is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 28, in the Student Center Auditorium. Admission is free.

Audience members will have an opportunity to ask questions about the project, said Philip S. Gatton, director of Plant and Service Operations.

“This is something we have wanted to do for a while,” said Justin M. Harrell, an electrical engineer in the Physical Plant who is helping spearhead the project. “I think we are at a point now where we have enough information together where it makes sense to do it, and where we hope we can get everyone’s questions answered.”

The University has been gathering information and working on plans to build a 493-foot-tall wind turbine on the west side of campus. Gatton and Harrell believe it would be a stable source of 5 percent of the campus’ annual electric needs.

The plan is for the wind turbine to be on the University Farms near the McLafferty Annex. Current plans are for an underground concrete base and monopole steel tower supporting the turbine stretching about 328 feet high into the sky from its base to the center of the rotor. The three rotor blades will span a diameter of approximately 328 feet. The top of the arc will be 493 feet.

By comparison, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is 630 feet.

If the SIU Board of Trustees approves construction, SIUC will be the first in Illinois to integrate a wind turbine into a university’s electric grid. There are a few wind turbines in use at community colleges and high schools in Illinois, but on a smaller scale. The wind turbines at Illinois State University do not tie into their campus’ power grid and are not part of a teaching component, Gatton said.

Gatton hopes to present the project to the board for consideration and approval at its meeting in December or in February 2011.

The wind turbine’s projected price tag is $7 million. But Gatton and Harrell emphasized that the project is self-funded through secured and anticipated grants, and the projected $415,000 annual savings in electrical costs that will be converted to repay construction costs.

Harrell noted there is a lot of uncertainty about where electricity prices will go once the economy recovers from the recession. There is the potential of carbon cap-and-trade legislation, which also could result in higher costs for electricity, but a faster return on investment for the wind turbine.

The University recently received notice of a $500,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to help with construction. The state agency is allowing the University to use up to $80,000 to help complete some of the federal requirements, including assessments of the project’s environmental impact on the land, birds and bats. The environmental assessment began this summer and is continuing, Gatton said.

The University will also apply for a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and hopes to receive up to $1.5 million, based upon the project size. SIUC received $30,000 from the organization in 2007 to begin data collection.

In addition, Gatton and Harrell said the Green Fund of the SIUC Sustainability Council has awarded the project half of the funds available over a five-year period, approximately $750,000. The Green Fund also provided $25,000 earlier this year for further assessment of the project and work on zoning and permitting issues.

Students at the University support the Green Fund through a $10 per semester fee implemented during the fall 2009 semester following a student-led initiative. The goal of the fee is to become a regular income source for projects that promote energy efficiency, the use of renewable energy and sustainability.

One component of the federal government environmental assessment is public outreach, but University officials already were planning a forum to provide information and gather public input, Gatton said. An important part of the forum is to clear up any misconceptions, he said.

“I want to give people an opportunity to tell us what they think, and maybe dispel any rumors they have heard before it gets to a point where they are so opposed to it that they really won’t know what the project is about,” Gatton said.

The Board of Trustees will be interested in the public input from the forum, Gatton said.

The forum will include photographs of what the wind turbine will look like from various areas around campus, a video that shows a wind turbine’s noise level, and a map of where shadow flickers are likely to occur. Shadow flicker is the phenomenon of shadows from the spinning rotor blades repeatedly passing over a populated area.

The campus is in a moderate to mild wind zone, meaning that the wind turbine will not run continuously, Gatton said. A benefit for the University is that overhead transmission lines already connect the University Farms to the main campus, providing a remote location and the capability to bring power back to campus at low cost, Gatton said.

There are no wind turbines in Southern Illinois, which presents a great opportunity for study and research, Gatton said. Along with educational opportunities, the wind turbine can also be an emphasis and potential deciding factor for prospective students, he said.

“Students are more and more interested in sustainability,” Gatton said, noting recent studies indicate approximately 70 percent of students consider campus sustainability when deciding upon which college to attend.

For more information about the meeting, contact Harrell at 618/453-4172 or by email at