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Board president: Turbine a bad investment

ERIE – The president of the Erie school board contends the district’s wind turbine was a bad investment for taxpayers. As such, he wants the district to look into selling it.

At least three members of the seven-member board want to keep it.

Last month, board President Charles Brown, who voted against the turbine in the first place, asked that the district look into selling it.

The district spent $2.8 million on the turbine, which has been running for 3 years and helps power the schools. The state kicked in $720,000 with a grant.

The main concern is how much the turbine saves in electricity costs versus the expense of maintenance.

In its second year of operation, the district saved $150,000. That’s less than the $185,000 in savings that Johnson Controls, the wind turbine contractor, promised, the district says.

With maintenance costs figured in, the net savings amounted to around $80,000 the second year.

Johnson Controls wouldn’t comment on the district’s numbers.

The turbine is a rare model, with only four others in North America, so it’s been hard to find experts to make repairs, which has added to maintenance costs, the district says.

Superintendent Brad Cox said the district doesn’t know how much it would get for the 230-foot turbine.

“We’re in the exploratory process,” he said. “If we sold it, it would be months or years from now.”

He said he was optimistic the district could reduce maintenance costs in the long run.

But Brown said such costs increase as machinery gets older.

“For a taxing body, it’s a poor investment,” he said. “Are we in a hurry-up mode to sell it? No, we’re not. If someone makes a decent offer, we could cut our losses and run.”

He stressed that he wasn’t against green energy but said that the board had to look out for taxpayers’ interests.

Three school board members defended the turbine.

“It’s a big investment. It was put there to save money,” member Rhonda Pannier said. “We have had problems, but we’re almost through those problems. We have to work out the kinks and move forward.”

Member Joe Weaver said he opposes selling it.

“When we put it up, it was for the right reason,” he said. “We had some significant maintenance. I attribute that to start-up problems. I would like to see another year’s worth of data.”

Tammy Tegeler said she still believes the turbine was a good idea.

“If we can harness Mother Nature, why not?” she said. “We need to help the environment. If we don’t take care of the world, no one else will.”

Brown said the board will have a full discussion of the issue at its Sept. 26 meeting.

“We’re going to go into more of the meat – the actual cost, the maintenance, the savings,” 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, officials say, but they haven’t come up with a specific number.

The turbine was the first in the state to power multiple buildings for a school district. Bureau Valley High School had a turbine up a few years before, but it powers only one building.