May 6, 2011

UI scraps Urbana wind turbine in wake of costs, opposition

Patrick Wade, The News-Gazette, 5 May 2011

URBANA – After more than seven years of wavering, University of Illinois officials have decided to kill a proposal to build a 400-foot wind turbine just south of the city limits.

The project seemed full speed ahead just months ago, before it was met with intense scrutiny from nearby residents and some city officials. Now, the UI has dropped the plan, and the move has sparked different reactions from both sides.

A nearby resident on Wednesday was “elated” that the UI has dumped the proposal, while a student environmentalist said she was “very disappointed that the university decided not to uphold its commitment.”

It is not the first time UI officials have killed the wind turbine project. Conceived in 2003 by students, the plan gained some momentum with administrators before stagnating and eventually dying at the hands of a tight university budget in 2008.

When a new chancellor took over in 2009, the wind turbine project gained new life. Earlier this year, UI President Michael Hogan reaffirmed the school’s commitment to the project after the proposal suddenly became $700,000 more expensive than original estimates and opposition from residents grew.

UI spokesman Tom Hardy said officials decided to kill the project because of its growing costs and strong opposition to the turbine’s proposed location.

“I think there was a feeling that, given those two factors, there would be ways for the university and the students to work together on alternative kinds of projects,” Hardy said.

Hogan earlier this year assured the student environmental group that the school was committed to the project, but after hearing “additional input from various places,” Hardy said, he reversed his position. “Not the least of them being the Urbana residents” and the inability to cover the project costs, Hardy added.

The price tag grew by $700,000 earlier this year, and the clock on a $2 million state grant to help fund the turbine runs out this month.

It seems the university’s decision is final, said Amy Allen, a member of Students for Environmental Concerns. Based on conversations the group had with UI administrators, she said, it does not appear the project will be revived as it has been in the past.

Hardy said “you can never rule something out altogether,” but the future of the project if there is one depends heavily on the university’s financial situation and the tenor of nearby residents.

Roy Douglas operates a farm near what had been the proposed location of the turbine, and he said the announcement alleviates his concerns about what effects the turbine may have had on his land. He has said crop dusters would not fly within a certain distance of the turbine, and a portion of his farmland would have been affected.

“It’s going to allow me to conduct business as I have been in my farming operation,” Douglas said.

His son lives next door, and Douglas hopes his grandchildren will be raised on the family farm without any disruption.

Residents from the Deerfield Trails and Yankee Ridge subdivisions were frequent participants in meetings with UI officials on the topic. Had a turbine been built, they worried flickering shadows from the spinning blades and a low buzz from its mechanics would have disrupted their peace and diminished their property values.

Douglas said residents spent a lot of time coordinating with city and university officials and organizing themselves to try and convince the UI off the proposal.

“More time than anybody will ever want to admit, I would imagine,” Douglas said.

In the end, he said, it was worth it.

“I was glad to be a part of it, what little I did, to make my feelings known,” Douglas said.

But the university still has promises to maintain, Allen said. A “climate action plan” aims to generate 5 percent of the campus’ electricity from renewable sources by 2015, and UI officials expected the turbine to take care of 1 percent of that.

“We’re very disappointed that this project can’t move forward, but we want to see the campus uphold its other commitments in the climate action plan,” Allen said.

A student committee charged with managing a $14 per semester “student sustainability fee” had committed $500,000 to the project.

“Students have invested in this for a long time,” Allen said. “Students voluntarily decided to increase their sustainability fees for projects like this.”

That committee has looked at other projects to help UI administrators reach the goals in the climate action plan, she said.

“We’re very disappointed about the wind turbine,” Allen said. “Pursuing other things is worthwhile, but it doesn’t make up for the wind turbine.”

It is too early to determine what the UI might initiate to cover the goals in the climate action plan, but Hardy said he expects the next step is for officials to discuss what projects are viable with the funding that has been made available.

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