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Schools to install, study wind turbines

While Kansas may be slow to embrace its wind as an energy source, an unlikely group is pushing ahead – public schools.

This summer, five rural Kansas school districts plan to install small wind turbines. While the units won’t produce much power, they will serve as a teaching tool for students and their communities. It’s part of a national initiative to pair wind turbines with schools in six states.

“I wish someone would have come to my school when I was that age and told me about this stuff,” said Amanda Brown, a Kansas State University senior in electrical engineering who worked on the project for a year. “I’m really glad to see schools thinking outside the box.”

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory selected six states – Kansas, Nebraska, Idaho, Colorado, South Dakota and Montana – for the Wind for Schools program. Each selected three to five school districts a year to receive the turbines.

Program officials chose states with lots of wind but relatively little progress in harnessing it.

The turbines aren’t the titans seen at big wind farms. They’re smaller units that produce only a few hundred dollars’ worth of electricity each year.

Their primary goal is to introduce students – and just as important, their parents – to renewable energy.

“We have to increase the number of students going into wind energy,” said Ruth Douglas Miller, an electrical and computer engineering professor at K-State and the Kansas liaison for the Wind for Schools program. “And there’s a positive effect of just showing the community.”

Other schools are joining the trend on their own.

In Missouri, the Liberty school district installed a wind turbine this year at an elementary school. It’s part of a larger initiative designed to make the schools greener and more energy-efficient.

Interim Superintendent Mike Brewer said a variety of classes can learn something from the Liberty turbine. Statistics classes crunch the data. Science students study the environment and energy. Technology classes study design and construction.

In Kansas, the Olathe district installed a small turbine and solar panels to power an athletics concessions stand.

“We need to get students involved in renewable energy because they’re going to inherit that issue from us,” said Bob Courtney, energy manager for Olathe schools.

Cloud County Community College in north-central Kansas made its new turbine the cornerstone of its wind energy technology program. Fort Hays State University and K-State also plan wind projects.

Lawmakers, who sometimes get frustrated by the lack of progress on big wind projects, see the school turbines as a vital investment in the future.

State Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, fought for a bill two years ago allowing a community college to install a turbine. He said it will reap dividends if it entices students to study renewable energy, or at least open their minds to it.

“Think about how long the surgeon general said smoking is bad for one’s health,” he said. “What turned the corner was when schoolkids came home and told their parents that their smoking was killing them. Same thing with seat belt use.

“As much as I might not want to admit it, public policy frequently is driven by schoolchildren.”

By David Klepper
Eagle Topeka bureau

The Wichita Eagle

9 June 2008