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School district may sell wind turbine

ERIE – The Erie school district is looking into whether it should sell perhaps the town’s most noticeable landmark – a wind turbine.

The district built the turbine 3 years ago to save on its energy costs. It is hooked to all of Erie’s schools.

Recently, school board President Charles Brown asked Superintendent Brad Cox to look into whether the district should sell the $3.5 million turbine, the only industrial one in Whiteside County.

Cox said he has followed through with the request, but he opposes selling the turbine.

The main issue is how much the turbine saves the district versus the costs of maintenance, he said.

In its second year of operation – Oct. 1, 2009, to Sept. 30, 2010 – the district saved $150,000, Cox said. That’s less than the $185,000 Johnson Controls, the wind turbine contractor, promised it would save that year, he said.

Actually, with maintenance costs factored in, the savings amounted to around $80,000 in the second year, Cox said.

“We have a performance contract with Johnson Controls. Contractually, we’re supposed to save so much money a year. We’re not meeting that. There are a lot of things that aren’t going quite right,” Cox said.

The turbine is a rare model, with only four others in North America, so it’s been hard to find experts to make repairs, he said.

Still, the superintendent said he is cautiously optimistic that things will turn around.

“We have a plan in place now to keep repair costs down,” he said.

In 2007, Johnson Controls announced on its website that the Erie turbine would cut the school district’s purchased electricity consumption by 87 percent. It hasn’t been that much, Cox said, although he didn’t have a specific number.

The website also said the turbine was the first in the state to power multiple buildings for a school district. That is true. Bureau Valley High School beat Erie by a few years with its turbine, but it powers only one building. It is the first turbine for a school in the state.

John Bute, Bureau County Schools superintendent, said their turbine has been worth the cost – when the school has excess energy, it sells it back to electric utility Ameren.

“If we went out and bought electricity directly from Ameren, our costs would have been substantially higher,” Bute said.