GV sticks with natural gas, despite wind energy trend

By Ellie Phillips | 2/6/13 8:16pm

While universities such as Michigan State and Carleton College, Minn., are using wind-generated energy to power their campuses, the main source of energy used on Grand Valley State University’s Allendale Campus is natural gas.

This isn’t because the GVSU community isn’t interested in sustainable energy sources such as wind power, but because the time for wind power on campus is simply not right.

The university consulted with wind experts, and the subsequent studies in recent years show that it would take 27 years in energy cost savings to make back the money spent on a turbine—not factoring in the monetary cost of the maintenance the turbine would need during those years.

The study was conducted by putting a meteorological tower at the cross-country trails that collected data for five years, measuring the wind at heights of 30, 40 and 50 meters.

The studies have determined that there isn’t enough wind on the Allendale Campus to make the investment worthwhile. Even the turbines at GVSU’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center and on the engineering building aren’t producing a significant amount of energy: they’re used for demonstrations.

GVSU, however, does have plans to incorporate wind-generated energy in some form in the future.

“Within the Climate Action Plan, wind energy is a component after 2020, but it is not specific about whether the energy would be produced on campus, be part of a renewable energy purchase agreement or by renewable energy credits,” said Bart Bartels, campus sustainability manager.

The university’s shift to wind power is dependent on a number of factors, including technological advancements.
“It’s possible as new technologies and more efficient wind turbines are developed along with first capital cost improving we may someday see power from the wind,” said Terry Pahl, a facilities engineer at GVSU who was deeply involved in the wind power studies. “It’s possible…that lower equipment costs will be developed to allow for a reasonable investment. In the meantime, we will continue to watch the market and the technology develop.”

The importance of sustainable energy sources such as wind power is becoming more and more prominent in the world, as well as more and more possible.

“Wind power is very competitive under the right conditions,” said Paul Isley, department chair and professor of economics. “At this very moment 12.9 percent of the electrical load in our region of the electrical grid is being supplied by wind power.”

The benefits of wind power are also becoming better known. The cost of wind energy is cheaper than the cost of building a new coal plant, though more expensive than drawing energy from existing coal plants, Bartels said. The problem with the existing plants is that they’re old—most constructed before WWII—and need to be replaced.

“The state of Michigan spends about $1 billion a year on fossil fuels,” Bartels said. “That is a billion dollars of our money that is traded for something that we start on fire. That is a bad business plan. With renewable energy we will be able to keep Michigan money in Michigan.”

While wind power is less of an economic burden than fossil fuels, it is also safer.

Isley said the ‘externalities’ (secondary or unintended consequences) of wind power include property prices being affected and the number of birds and bats killed by the turbines, while coal production has externalities that include air pollution, which negatively affects human health.

Considering the pros and cons, though, some still feel that now is not the time for GVSU to switch to wind energy.

“I think wind energy on Allendale Campus would be a wonderful thing,” said Arn Boezaart, director of MAREC. “But you need to be practical about that. I don’t think the time to invest in it is today.”

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