Monday, September 13, 2010

Middle school wind turbine benefits equipment makers, not students

Turbine whips up interest - Triblocal - Voice of the town

Dear Editor,

The new, $24,000 wind turbine at Thomas Middle School poses some thorny questions: What is its economic value, and what is its educational value?

With a peak rated output of 2.4 kilowatts, this wind turbine can generate 57 kWh (kilowatt-hours) per day if there is constant wind. But wind isn't constant, and wind turbines typically operate at about 30% peak capacity.[1] This offers the school electricity worth about $1.38 per day at today's electric rates. Let's figure out when the turbine will "pay for itself". We start with several assumptions biased in favor of the wind turbine:
  1. The equipment never requires repair or maintenance -such an assumption wouldn't be optimistic so much as foolish.
  2. The total upfront cost of the installation is $24,000, or $10,000 per kW. Yes, $10,000 of this came through a State of Illinois grant, but we taxpayers still foot the entire cost. And let’s assume that if this sum were invested elsewhere, it could earn about 3% annually.
  3. All the generated power is used productively by the school or returned to the grid. (Whether this is the case, the Trib article doesn't reveal.)
  4. The cost of electricity today is about 8 cents per kWh. Let's assume it will increase steeply at 7% every year.
"Honey... did we buy the extended warranty?"

Given these assumptions, our wind turbine will “break even” in the year 2044, when today's 7th graders are 46 years old: that is, after 34 years operation without repair or maintenance, and only after a hypothetical tenfold increase in electric rates. Using more realistic assumptions, there's no reasonable hope that this project ever will recover its cost to taxpayers.

How will the wind turbine benefit our students educationally? Will they learn how wind turbines generate electricity? Great! But this can be taught in the classroom, and in hands-on labs with much less expensive equipment.

Will the wind turbine be used to teach students how to think critically, how to estimate the costs and benefits of such a project? Will they learn that some projects advertised as "green" actually waste more resources than they conserve: that sometimes "green" is only skin deep?

True conservation, true "green renewal", requires good use of our resources, and minimizing economic waste is part of the environmental equation. Our science students need to learn this, and we can teach the concept, but wasting money on unneeded equipment teaches a perverse lesson: that waste is good. In fact, we can teach science much better without our own turbine, because the funds wasted on this equipment could be better used to augment faculty, books, and labs... or to supplement next year's budget.

The solar panels installed at the school three years ago failed to generate much interest. Their economic benefit also has been uninspiring: a total generated output of 1252 kWh[2], worth only $100. Dare we ask what the solar panels cost to purchase and install? Have they proved to be a good investment either educationally or economically? Who profited most from the solar panels: the students, or those who sold the system? What other educational opportunities were lost when the solar panels were funded? What reason is there to believe the wind turbine will provide any greater benefit than the solar panels? How long will the wind turbine capture attention before there are proposals to buy the next New Thing?

Education dollars are precious and we can't afford to squander them. For the sake of our children we need to urge our schools to sharpen their priorities and make the best possible use of the available funds. We shouldn’t tolerate wasteful spending at the expense of our children.


[1] American Wind Energy Association:
[2] As of 9/13/2010. Arlington Heights School District 25:,

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