It took nearly seven years, but the blades are finally turning on a pair of wind turbines at the Archbold and Pettisville schools in northwestern Ohio, demonstrating how school districts can take control of their energy future and create educational opportunities for their kids at the same time.
“We have controlled the price of the electricity we will use going forward,” says Stephen Switzer, superintendent of the Pettisville schools. The turbine has a projected lifespan of 20 years.
Administrators at both of the small-town school districts had been looking into how to become more self-sufficient and reduce their energy bills since the mid-2000s. Switzer says he had watched as other districts grappled with financial problems brought on by energy costs, and he didn't want his schools to end up in the same situation when they built a new buidling, as they were planning to do in 2011. But it wasn’t until federal stimulus funds became available through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in 2009 that the construction of the twin turbines became a reality.
Since the turbine's activation in late February, says Switzer, the 85-foot blades of the 300-foot-tall 750-kilowatt structure in Pettisville have been whirring away productively, generating about 325,000 kilowatt hours to date. On some calm days, the school has to buy electricity from the utility, but on others, when the wind is strong, it sells juice back to the grid.
In Archbold, school officials hope that the turbine will eventually meet 74 percent of the electricity needs of the district’s high school and elementary school.
Building wind turbines isn’t cheap. Pettisville’s cost more than $2.1 million, and Archbold’s came in at $1.8 million, with each school getting more than half the cost of the American-made turbines covered by stimulus funds. The rest was paid by funding from the state and interest-free loans. According to the Archbold Buckeye, proximity of the turbine sites to rail lines reduced costs. Contractors also offered better prices because the two jobs were so close together.
Switzer says that for Pettisville, the turbine will mean about $100,000 in energy savings each year.
The turbines have become part of the math and science curricula in the schools, an effort that’s being encouraged by consultants from the Renaissance Group, an Ohio firm that worked on the project and runs a program called Kilowatts for Education.
The only downside so far came on the first couple of days after the turbines were turned on. The light conditions were just right to create a flickering shadow that fell directly on the school, something that will occur at certain predictable times of year according to the position of the sun in the sky.
“We learned pretty quickly that the flicker is not something you ignore,” says Switzer. “It’s like a strobe light.” The solution is to turn off the unit when the flicker starts.
The superintendent says that support from the community has been strong throughout the process, and that he’s very happy with the way the project has come out. He likes seeing the turbine when he drives to work each day. “It’s a good feeling to have it there,” he says.
Switzer says he and the Archbold superintendent had hoped that their turbines would be a model for other schools around the country, and a few similar projects do exist. But without the stimulus money, he acknowledges, the Pettisville and Archbold turbines would never have been built. And it’s not clear when, or if, that kind of funding will come around again.