February 17, 2010

Wind for Schools: The Little Program with Big Benefits

The reach of NREL’s Wind for Schools initiative stretches from K-12 on up through the industry itself. By Carl Levesque Imagine a school at which wind is powering the building, and where it is also fueling the minds of the students inside.Whirring classroom laptops show data that stream in real time from the small wind…

The reach of NREL’s Wind for Schools initiative stretches from K-12 on up through the industry itself.

By Carl Levesque

Imagine a school at which wind is powering the building, and where it is also fueling the minds of the students inside.Whirring classroom laptops show data that stream in real time from the small wind turbine spinning outside the window, allowing students to monitor electricity output and incorporate the information into both their math and science lessons. Driving by the school, members of the surrounding community in the rural area at first view the newly installed, modern-looking piece of technology in the same manner that anyone seeing their first wind turbine does: with intellectual curiosity, admiration, and even a small dose of wonder. As time passes, they continue to drive by the structure in their pickup trucks and minivans, usually ignoring the lazily turning blades that by now have become a mere mundane part of the landscape—but maybe, every so often, giving them a quick glance.

Thanks to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL’s) Wind for Schools program, that scenario is already happening in several states. Particularly well-conceived and interesting for its simplicity relative to its impact, Wind for Schools provides much more than power, for it reaches a surprisingly wide array of groups: the schools and its students, members of the surrounding communities, universities in the state, local utilities, and even the wind industry itself.

How it works

NREL identified six states to participate in the program, focusing on those with good, but largely untapped, wind resources. The states chosen include Idaho, Kansas, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Each state has its own facilitator, who works with schools to analyze the wind resource they possess, assess whether the community support is sufficient, and determine whether the local utility would be a willing participant.

The program, now in its second year of a three-year funding cycle, also calls for a Wind Application Center located at a university in each state to provide schools with third-party information on wind projects and assist in the installation of the small wind turbines. The Application Center also works with the facilitator in preparing requests for proposals that go out to schools, sifting through the proposals, and even assisting with the operation and maintenance of the turbines once they are installed.

NREL provides only a portion of the funding, instead seeking to get multiple parties involved in backing the program. Small-turbine producer Southwest Windpower, for example, provides its Skystream turbines at significantly reduced cost, and school districts pay for the hardware with a combination of their own funds, state grants, and private donations, facilitated by the program.

“We’re really excited to be involved in the program,” said Miriam Robbins of Southwest Windpower, explaining that the partnership is “a good fit,” partially because of the Skystream’s relatively easy-to-install design and its remote monitoring capabilities.

A $10,000 wind energy kit includes the Skystream unit, a tower, disconnect boxes at the base of the turbine and at the school, and an interconnection to the school’s electrical system. Local utilities often donate installation equipment and labor; in addition, wind power companies also have stepped up to the plate. In November developers Babcock & Brown and Iberdrola Renewables each pledged $10,000 to help support the South Dakota program; Horizon Wind Energy has also contributed, as has Tradewind Energy, which seized the opportunity to be a good neighbor in an area in Kansas where it has wind facilities.

It’s not about the kilowatts

At schools like Jerome Middle School in Idaho, the Southwest Windpower Skystream turbine planted outside the building produces a relatively small portion of the school’s electricity. The Skystream turbines, of course, are designed for residential and small-business use, and so therefore the program is not meant to generate revenue for school districts or displace power consumed annually by a typical school.

The program does, however, get an impressive bang for its buck. At the local participating schools, students learn firsthand about the science and technology behind wind energy. Lessons in multiple subjects can be centered around the topic, offering a real-world application to their studies while also teaching them about wind energy’s benefits. In addition, the communities, many of which are in areas that have a massive untapped wind resource, also learn key lessons—perhaps most importantly, that wind power makes a good neighbor.

“The idea is to set up little micro-wind projects,” said Dan Nagengast, Wind for Schools’ state facilitator for Kansas. “It gets people [in local communities] familiar with wind.”

That’s a meaningful objective for Nagengast’s state, given that Kansas possesses some of the best untapped wind resources in the U.S. Program plans call for a total of 16 turbines to be installed during the three-year funding period for the program.

At one high school in Kansas, “the turbine gets visited every day,” with data incorporated into classroom assignments, says Ruth Douglas Miller, the engineering professor who leads the Wind Application Center at Kansas State University (KSU). At an elementary school, she reports, “The students were just ecstatic to have [the turbine] going. There was really a lot of excitement.”

But educating children and communities aren’t the only functions of Wind for Schools. Another group the program reaches is university students. With the program’s Wind Application Center located at a university, engineering students not only monitor data coming out of project sites, they help install the turbines. The turbines are small, but the students nevertheless are participating in the many facets of project development, calculating the concrete needed for the foundation, considering soil type and wind resource at sites, and performing other kinds of analysis. “Whenever we can, we actually try to have them go on site,” said Miller.

So that makes three different groups that Wind for Schools educates: the kids, the local community, and engineering students—all with one single turbine. But the one-turbine outreach goes even beyond those groups. Also consider the utility, which must familiarize itself with wind energy. Miller says that when working with the utility, the Application Center must assume the utility is unfamiliar with wind energy and that it must start from square one.

Developing talent

The program may already be reaping benefits for the talent-hungry wind industry. Miller says that KSU graduates about twenty engineering students per year; thanks at least in part to Wind for Schools, nowadays about half of those students want to pursue positions in renewable energy.

Slightly longer term, the program also seeks to leave its mark on the universities as well. Yet another purpose of Wind for Schools is to encourage institutions of higher learning to make a bigger commitment to renewable energy. “Right now, there is no degree at U.S. engineering schools on wind energy,” Ian Baring-Gould, NREL project leader, noted in an article for the NREL Web site.

At KSU, most of the students interested in renewables are in the electrical engineering program with a power specialty, said Miller. Might a purely renewables program be eventually formed? “I think there is a possibility of that at the graduate level,” she says.

Meanwhile, the Wind for Schools program continues to educate right down to the grassroots level, dispelling myths and promoting the clean, renewable energy source. At one local school, said Miller, “One student said, ‘I didn’t think that wind energy was any good, but now I can see it really works.’”

Carl Levesque is communications editor at the American Wind Energy Association.
Reprinted with permission from Windletter, a publication of the American Wind Energy Association