Students study wind energy as turbines gain favor
By Rosemary Shinohara
Anchorage Daily News
For those in breezy parts of Anchorage, there's finally an opportunity to put brisk, unpleasant winds to good use. Pieces are falling into place that will let residents and businesses generate some of their own energy with a wind turbine, and cut their power bills.
In East Anchorage, Begich Middle School, led by applied technology teacher Scott McKim, wants to be among the first to take advantage of the new, greener climate for wind power here. The school just won School Board approval to install a turbine on its campus as part of a federal program to teach about renewable energy. It will generate enough power to run up to eight computers, says McKim, and should make a noticeable dent in the school's electric bills. But its main purpose is educational.
On the Hillside, Paradise Valley resident Doug Lowry has been waiting for local government and utilities to catch up to the national trend for one-house turbines.
"My wife and I looked into a wind turbine about 1 1/2 years ago," said Lowry. A renewable energy company surveyed their property at the top of Goldenview and said it was plenty windy. "But the municipality would not allow them at that time."
With four children and a 4,800-square-foot house, Lowry's electric bill is about $400 a month. He says a federal tax credit will subsidize 40 percent of the installation costs, helping to make it cost effective. "I'm going to get it going now."
He is also interested in a wind turbine for his company, Professional Legal Copy, which is in the Port of Anchorage area.
ONE TURBINE PER LOT
Statewide rules to make individual wind turbines fit into utility systems went into effect last summer, and Chugach Electric Association, which serves most of Anchorage, right away set up its own plan for crediting customers who actually create enough of their own power to send some to the system, said a Chugach official. A proposal by the city-owned Municipal Light & Power to do the same is pending before the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.
The Anchorage Assembly in August passed a law that allows one wind turbine per residential lot, and set the rules for them and for larger turbines in heavy industrial areas.
Mostly, wind power wouldn't be the first choice of renewable energy in Anchorage, say experts at alternative energy companies. There's not enough of it. Solar power makes more sense most places in the city, said Kirk Garoutte of Susitna Energy, with a Midtown office and two wind turbines up mostly for demonstration.
"The Bush is our biggest clientele," said Garoutte. "Midtown isn't that good."
Anywhere along the coast in Anchorage is better, he said.
CIRI HELPS OUT
At Begich Middle School, producing energy is a secondary goal. And the wind turbine project is one of a string of projects McKim has had a hand in that are about sustaining ourselves. A greenhouse and a composting operation are others.
McKim said a parent, Jim Jager of Cook Inlet Region Inc., helped develop the wind turbine idea. Cook Inlet Region has proposed building a wind farm on Fire Island that would supply about 4 percent of the Railbelt's electricity.
CIRI will contribute to the Begich wind turbine, Jager said. McKim said it is estimated to cost about $20,000 and the school is hoping for donated labor and equipment.
Begich Middle School is participating in the federal Department of Energy's Wind for Schools program, which gives grants to an Anchorage-based non-profit group, Renewable Energy Alaska Project and to the University of Alaska's Center for Energy and Power to support the schools that are interested.
Stephanie Nowers, communications director for REAP, said more than 20 schools in Alaska have signed up for the Wind for Schools project, though not all of them will actually install wind turbines. Some will simply use the wind energy classroom lessons.
Sherrod Elementary in Palmer and the Juneau Coast Guard station, which works with area schools, have turbines. One was being installed last week at the Coast Guard facility in Sitka, that will be available for Mt. Edgecumbe High students next door to use in studies. Another is planned for the Mat-Su College campus near Palmer.
HANDS-ON IN CLASSROOM
Alaska is one of 11 states in the project, which is aimed at introducing wind power to rural communities, and introducing young people to the science and technology of wind turbines.
In McKim's applied technology classes, students have designed their own wind turbine blades and tested the effect of changing material, length of the blades and angles.
"A bigger fin like this will create more energy," said Patrick Oswald, an eighth-grader, as he demonstrated on a model wind turbine the students made.
Students in a before-school club called PACE -- Planning Academic Career Excellence -- are learning much more than science and math. They will raise money. And to get city permission, they've had to notify the school's neighbors, some 27 of them, of the project.
Students made computer models showing the windmill on various potential sites.
"I learned it takes a lot to get things started," said eighth-grader Megan Junge.
"Good public speaking" is another lesson, said student Laura Elora.