October 11, 2006

Wind power comes blowing into Dublin

New River Community College is launching a program to train people to work on wind-power turbines in response to growing interest in the technology.

When the program is under way, students may not have to travel far at all to study a turbine in action.

Volvo Trucks North America plans to erect an 80-foot-high turbine along its Interstate 81 frontage to save on electricity.

While several turbines have been erected around the state, the diesel-truck manufacturer would be the largest, most prominent company to put one up, said people who follow the progress of wind power.

Proponents of turbines hope Volvo’s corporate endorsement will spark more interest in the technology, which has yet to be embraced on a major scale in Virginia.

“I think it’s great, because of the visibility,” said Billy Weitzenfeld, executive director of the Association of Energy Conservation Professionals, based in Floyd.

Volvo’s 10-kilowatt turbine is expected to power the company’s illuminated signs and the spotlights it shines on two trucks, saving about $300 a month.

Mike Kijak, facilities manager for the truck plant, said Volvo is seeking “out-of-the-box” ways to reduce its energy costs. A company committee looked into both solar and wind power before choosing the latter for a test project expected to cost $50,000.

“It’s a very windy location,” he said of Volvo’s Dublin property.

The minutes from the Pulaski County Planning Commission meeting, where approval of Volvo’s turbine was recommended, indicate the company will monitor the machine to see if “additional systems may be useful some day.”

Asked if more turbines could be forthcoming, Volvo spokesman Jim McNamara said the company does not comment on future plans. The county supervisors in August granted Volvo a special-use permit for its turbine.

The size of Volvo’s turbine pales in comparison to the giant, utility-grade models used by power companies in states other than Virginia.

Still, Harold Hagee, who lives by the Volvo plant, has concerns about the company’s project.

He said he fears Volvo will want to add additional, larger turbines if the first one works well. “I guess I can live with just one,” Hagee said.

There are no large-scale wind farms in Virginia. An application is pending for a 39-megawatt, 19-turbine facility in Highland County.

That project has a key hearing later this month and a decision could come later this year or early next, said Jonathan Miles, a professor in the integrated science and technology department at James Madison University, who is active promoting the use of turbines. He and colleagues from JMU worked with Volvo on its turbine project.

Miles said he knew of fewer than 20 power generating turbines across the state. His department at JMU offers courses on renewable energy technologies, including wind. Miles said that he has had at least one senior write a thesis on wind power each year, dating to 1998.

Wind power is growing in popularity, thanks in part to high prices for other fuels, federal tax incentives and concern over global warming that has made emissions-free power a greater priority.

Nationwide the number of megawatts of electricity generated by wind increased 36 percent from 2004 to 2005, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

“Of all the renewable-energy system technologies that are out there it produces power at the lowest cost, and it’s cost-competitive in many parts of the country, even around here these days, with natural gas and coal,” said Richard Hirsh, director of the consortium on energy restructuring at Virginia Tech.

New River officials landed a $15,000 grant from the Virginia Community College System for a program in new technology, and chose wind power, said Ron Chaffin, the school’s vice president for work force development.

“Even though we don’t have any [Virginia wind farms] right now, we would put together something very basic and be ready if the state of Virginia takes a step in that direction,” he said.

To gather information for their program, officials from the community college have already visited Texas State Technical College in Abilene, which is in an area of that state with massive wind farms.

Next month, New River officials are going to a renewable-energy conference at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y.

Wind power is the main focus of the event said Dan Lookadoo, New River’s dean of business and technology.

He said the college already teaches courses in electronics and instrumentation that could apply to turbines, and the new curriculum “would be just a little adaptation, I guess.”

Eventually, New River officials would like to set up a transfer arrangement with JMU for students interested in going on to study wind power in more depth.

Miles, the JMU professor, said serious talks have not taken place, but “I think when the time is right we would certainly want to explore an opportunity to kind of leverage the interest in wind power between our institutions.”

To date, plans for wind farming in the Roanoke or New River valleys have not advanced far.

A Chicago firm that was interested in putting turbines on Bent and Poor mountains decided not to proceed. About five years ago a company was interested in putting turbines on Cloyd Mountain but nothing came of it, said Joseph Sheffey, Pulaski County Board of Supervisors chairman.

In Pulaski, turbines on the scale proposed for Highland County would raise concerns, but “this one here proposed at Volvo is definitely a much smaller type,” Sheffey said.

By Albert Raboteau


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