ERIE – The Erie school district is touted as the first in the United States to power more than one building with a single wind turbine.
But district officials say they are not happy, because the turbine hasn’t brought the promised savings.
With the current rate of savings, the district now estimates the payback time will be twice as long – 24 years instead of 12, Superintendent Brad Cox said.
Through a public records request, Sauk Valley Media has obtained correspondence between the district and Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc., which was general contractor for installation of the turbine.
The 230-foot-high turbine has been in operation more than 3 years. It’s supposed to save the district on energy costs. Whatever is not used is sold to ComEd.
According to the district, the estimated savings from the turbine in the second year amounted to $140,253. But over the last couple of years, the savings have fallen short of what was promised in the original contract with Johnson Controls, Cox said in an April 10 letter to the company.
The shortfalls were $36,669 in the second year and $51,987 in the third, totaling $88,656, he said.
The district asked the company to forward a check for the shortfalls “at your earliest convenience.”
Johnson Controls disagreed.
“When the parties entered into the performance contract, it was understood and agreed that JCI cannot control wind speed or consistency,” Claudius Anderson, a Johnson Controls regional operations manager, said in an April 23 letter to Cox.
The parties agreed to projected energy savings based on good-faith engineering estimates of energy production, Anderson said.
Johnson Controls cited the contract, in which the Erie district agreed that the company “shall not be held responsible for the achievement of such project benefits, as the actual realization of those project benefits is not within JCI’s control.”
The district’s claim for payment for an “alleged energy savings shortfall is not consistent with – nor is it in the spirit of – the agreement,” Anderson wrote.
Anderson didn’t return a call for comment.
The turbine cost the district $3.5 million. Of that, $720,000 came from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation, a nonprofit group that started with a $212 million endowment from ComEd in 1999. The district owes the rest.
On Johnson Controls’ website, the company says the Erie district will decrease its electricity costs by 87 percent, representing $5.5 million in total energy savings over 30 years. But if the second-year savings of $140,253 are an indication, the 30-year savings would amount to $4.2 million, significantly less than what the company touted.
In an interview, Cox said the district’s position is that the contract “very clearly” guarantees monetary savings tied to electricity costs.
Cox wouldn’t say what the district’s next step would be. Asked whether the district would sue, he declined to comment.
Turbine not always running
School board member Joe Weaver said he likes the wind turbine.
“Anything we can do to help our energy costs is a good situation,” he said.
But he’s concerned that the turbine hadn’t been running as much lately.
“The biggest problem we’ve been having is with ComEd,” Weaver said. “We’re having a hard time getting in sync with the grid. They’ve been a good reason why we keep going offline.”
Cox confirmed that the turbine had been offline for consecutive days four times in the last month. That was for a variety of reasons, he said, but he would provide no details.
Sauk Valley Media obtained emails between Cox and ComEd officials over the last few months, in which the superintendent brought the grid problems to the utility’s attention.
At one point, for instance, Cox said the district had seven grid errors on seven consecutive workdays between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. Grid errors are when the electrical grid’s voltage is either too high or low, so the turbine can’t operate safely.
In January, Cox informed ComEd that a circuit board for the turbine was damaged. He said an analysis hadn’t been done to determine whether it had been caused by the grid errors.
“In the meantime, we are using a damaged board which greatly limits our productivity and savings,” he said in an email.
In a recent interview, Cox declined to say whether the district had determined a reason for the damaged circuit board.
Last year, Charles Brown, the school board’s president, who voted against the turbine in the first place, asked that the district look into selling it. Other board members wouldn’t go along.
“For a taxing body, it’s a poor investment,” Brown said in an interview last August. “If someone made a decent offer, we could cut our losses and run.”
The main concern was how much the turbine saves in electricity costs versus the expense of maintenance.
Bureau turbine considered worthwhile
In Illinois, a number of schools now have turbines. Bureau County’s Bureau Valley High School was the first. Its turbine has been operating since January 2005.
Kent Siltman, the Bureau Valley school board’s vice president, was the only member to vote against the turbine.
“I still believe it was the correct vote at the time,” he said. “I didn’t think it’s something the school district should have been investing in. Now, it’s a moot issue. We have sunk money into it. It’s worthwhile at this point in time.”
Superintendent John Bute, who is leaving to take another job, said the savings as a result of the turbine are far more than the costs of having one. Danish wind turbine maker Vestas has been “really responsive” to maintenance issues, he said.
“Sometimes it’s taken longer that I hoped to get replacement parts. It does work for us. It would cost a lot more money without the turbine,” the superintendent said.
The turbine is down at times, he said. Last year, it went offline for 2 weeks after a sensor burned in the summer heat. In late May, it was shut down for 3 weeks by a lightning strike.
As for grid errors, Bureau Valley, whose utility is Ameren, had more of them last year.
“They are frustrating,” he said. “That’s something a school district can’t control.”
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