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School wind turbine not working as touted

CONNEAUT – A permanent fix to the balky wind turbine at Conneaut Middle School could come before the end of the year, Kent Houston, Conneaut Area City Schools superintendent, said Tuesday.

The 600-kilowatt turbine, erected early this year, has operated barely more than 60 percent of the time, according to a letter sent to Houston from owner NexGen Energy of Boulder, Colo. NexGen had expected the machine to work at a 95 percent level.

The problem is a faulty hydraulic system, John M. Brown, NexGen president, said in his letter.

“Unfortunately, the hydraulic system has failed to maintain the pressure necessary to operate the turbine effectively on an ongoing basis,” he said. “At no point has there been a safety risk to anyone. Without a properly functioning hydraulic system, the turbine simply does not run.”

Houston and school board member Nicholas Iarocci spoke recently with NexGen officials. New hydraulics will be installed within four to six weeks, Houston said.

“Hopefully, (the problem) is coming to an end,” he said.

The massive turbine was built at no cost to the school district, which agreed only to buy power it generates for a 10-year period. School officials were banking on NexGen’s rates proving cheaper than FirstEnergy’s costs.

The turbine’s low performance has made it difficult to evaluate the extent of savings, Iarocci said. The school’s electric bills are smaller but not as small as they could be if the machine were running as billed, he said.

“We’re not saving as much as we thought we would save,” Iarocci said. “But it’s not costing us any money. Overall, we’ve saved money by combining NexGen and First Energy.”

Treasurer Mary Gillespie agreed. Utility bills are down compared to 2009, she said. Officials know the turbine’s true worth will be known after it has been operating steadily for a few years, Gillespie said.

“We knew it would be long-term,” she said.

NexGen is just as affected as the Conneaut Middle School, Brown said in his letter.

“As you know, NexGen Energy, as the owner of the system, has made a significant financial investment in your project and is compensated on electricity generated, so we share your concern and disappointment,” he wrote.

As a goodwill gesture, the company has agreed to freeze the rate it charges the district through 2011, Brown wrote.

The turbine, designed to provide 60 percent of the electricity needed at the middle school, raised concerns as far back as March, just a few weeks after it began operating. At that time, officials were told a few parts were needed to make it fully operational.

Over the past few months, plenty of people have contacted the district about the idled turbine, board members said.

NexGen also owns a smaller 400 kW turbine that is providing power to the city of Conneaut’s wastewater treatment plant. That turbine, perched on the Lake Erie shore, hasn’t been a problem, officials have said.