When the Erie School Board approved a $3.5 million wind project in April 2006, Kirk Heston saw it as a nice opportunity for his company to test the waters of wind energy.
At the time, Mr. Heston was account executive with Johnson Controls, Moline. After spending the last 20 years in Moline, Mr. Heston was promoted this month to national program manager for renewable energy at the company’s Milwaukee headquarters.
What started with the Erie school district has now exploded into a high-demand growth industry for the company. Wind energy is being considered the panacea for all that ills some school districts and municipal governments. It is changing the way people think about future energy costs at hospitals and nursing homes.
It has given rural landowners incentives to lease property to companies seeking to harness wind energy to sell to large power companies. Some landowners are even working with private investors to put single towers on their properties. Landowners reap the energy from those towers, investors the tax write-offs.
Today, Johnson Controls has 19 school wind turbine opportunities in Illinois and 25 overall projects scheduled for completion by the end of 2008. It has another 34 projects going in Minnesota.
“It all came about with Erie,” Mr. Heston said. “It was the one that gave us the catalyst to move forward. From a corporate standpoint, it really made us stand up and take a look at renewable energy and sustainability.”
Erie superintendent Mike Ryan said the wind turbine is scheduled to go up this spring after some delays.
“We project over the 30-year life of the turbine the school district could realize savings of $4 million,” he said.
Christine Real Ge Azua, spokesperson for the Sustainable Energy Coalition in Washington, D.C., said the growth of wind energy depends on economic factors, like fuel prices and policies at both state and national levels.
“The cost of gas is going up,” Ms. Real Ge Azua said. “Natural gas supplies are being depleted. So now utilities are looking at diversifying electricity supplies.”
The Erie school district isn’t the only governmental body in the region hoping to harness the wind for power.
Henry County’s wind energy prospects started with Hillcrest Home, the county’s nursing home. Initially, it was looking to get up to five wind towers on its property.
The test results ended up drawing the interest of wind energy companies, which are in the process of setting up wind farms in the county.
Although it’s still unknown whether the nursing home will get its wind towers, three companies have acquired permits to put more than 500 wind towers in the county. A fourth company is scheduled to seek permits also.
Henry County Zoning Administrator Bill Philhower said construction could start as early as this fall or next spring, he said.
Last fall, Mr. Heston traveled to Geneseo to talk to the mayor and city council about wind energy alternatives. Geneseo Ald. Kevin Peterson, 4th Ward, likes the idea.
“Green energy is not mandated yet, but I feel it probably is going to be,” he said. “The cost of energy has gone up so rampantly. With the costs going up, it becomes very attractive to look at wind energy certainly as a supplemental unit.”
Geneseo completed a wind study with Johnson Controls and is now looking for a site to put up a test tower.
“We’re still in the preliminary stages,” Ald. Peterson said.
At Mercer County Hospital, administrator Tim Putnam is looking for ways to trim energy bills.
The hospital is part of a feasibility study with the county, nursing home and Aledo school district to see if wind energy is a part of its future.
“The results of the study should be available in the next month,” Mr. Putnam said. “What we hope to see is if we can utilize wind energy. It will fix a big part of our energy costs.”
Rick Regnier, supervisor of assessments and zoning officer for Mercer County, envisions wind energy here for a long time.
“I’m anticipating the area is going to be inundated with wind turbines somewhere down the road,” he said. “Good, bad or indifferent, they’re going to be here.”
By Stephen Elliott, firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted online: March 25, 2007
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