Kudos to local communities for trying to act fiscally and environmentally responsible by proposing to build wind turbines to supply the electrical needs of their high schools. Beverly, Ipswich and Salem are all considering such projects, which would save the school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.
As budgets get stretched ever further, it is tempting to see windmills as windfalls, but we urge reconsideration of academic involvement in what is properly a municipal or private-sector power supplier’s job.
It is always dangerous to enter a sphere in which you are not expert and in which expertise is required. Educators should stick to education and let power companies build generators.
The Ipswich wind turbine, in particular, makes little sense. If schools Superintendent Rick Korb gets his wish, a wind turbine would supply all the power needs of the middle and high schools, which share a campus. That would save Korb some $300,000 a year; but the Electric Light Department, which supplies power throughout town, would be the loser, and might even have to raise rates for its remaining customers to make up the difference.
Why not just give the schools the electricity, and avoid spending $3-plus million to build the generator, thereby double-billing taxpayers? Or, if schools are viewed as a good place to experiment with these alternative means of producing electricity, enter into an agreement whereby the machinery would be operated by the local utility rather than the educators themselves.
Wind turbines are expensive, and require maintenance. Someone has to schedule that service and make sure it’s done properly. Someone has to monitor the operation to identify problems before they become more serious.
That is the work of a trained force of electrical experts, not superintendents or school board members.
Too often building principals adopt a proprietary attitude toward anything that takes place on the premises, even when it involves a youth basketball league seeking permission to use the gym a couple of nights a week. They must be prepared to cede a certain amount of control when it comes to complicated “green” technology.
Nor does this technology always work. While there have been sporadic attempts to power up the solar array that dominates a hillside next to Beverly High School, for many years it sat there more symbolic of the empty promise of renewable energy than as a beacon for the future.
Good intentions alone cannot assure the success of these projects. Before communities spend millions demonstrating their concern for the environment by erecting huge wind turbines or investing in other forms of energy production, they should be certain there will be a reasonable return on and proper management of those facilities.
8 May 2007
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