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A New Age for Wind Power in Oberlin?

As energy costs continue to rise, environmental awareness is stirring up interest in alternative power. In Oberlin, the city is moving one step closer to wind power, due in part to the efforts of Oberlin College physics professor John Scofield and May 2006 graduate Michael Roth. To test the economic feasibility of wind turbines in Oberlin, the pair initiated a plan to erect a 160-foot wind tower in nearby New Russia Township, about a mile north of Oberlin. The project is funded by a $13,000 grant from the Oberlin Sustainable Reserve Fund.

“One of the things we are excited about is that the tower is freestanding and self-powered by solar energy,” says Roth. It’s also connected wirelessly to the Internet, which will allow wind conditions to be displayed on a web site that doubles as an educational tool.

Roth was a student in Scofield’s Energy Technologies course in 2003, when students were asked to study whether or not Oberlin could support a wind farm and how a team of researchers might test for its viability. Afterward, Scofield asked interested students to join him in the real thing.

Roth didn’t jump on board at first; it took a summer program in environmental studies at Carnegie Mellon to sharpen his interest in green energy. But the following fall he contacted Scofield and began applying for grant money.

Oberlin’s is not the first regional project focused on wind. Bowling Green, a college town similar in topography to Oberlin, has four commercial wind turbines that power 18,000 homes, making up for their initial cost of $2 million each.

While Bowling Green’s successful integration of renewable energy sparked interest in wind turbines for Oberlin, such a program may not be economically sustainable here. “We’re right on the margin,” says Roth. “Until we monitor for a year, we’re not going to know whether or not it’s economically viable.”

“Everyone knows this is a marginal project financially—no silly promises were made,” adds Scofield. “In the long run things have to make sense economically or they won’t be sustained. [But] it is clear that the business case for wind is getting better all the time, as generator technology improves and the costs of other forms of energy continue to grow.”

But for the College and town, the implications alone of renewable energy are exciting enough to earn support for the wind tower. “The College has supported our efforts in several ways,” says Scofield, noting specifically several people and divisions who helped develop instrumentation, attended zoning hearings, and provided a temporary mast for sensors during testing and development. The College also offered land north of campus to house the tower, but Scofield and Roth instead chose the more visible New Russian Township nature preserve. Happy to host the site, the township provided $2,500 to fund the wireless Internet connection.

Oberlin’s municipal power company has also thrown support behind the tower.  Scofield says the Oberlin Municipal Light and Power System worked closely with him over the past year to handle the purchasing of equipment and the erection of the tower. 

Roth notes that even if tests determine that wind turbines are not currently feasible, the project remains an important one. “One of the reasons we got the grant is because even if this is not profitable right now, it could be in the future,” he says. Data gleaned from the wind tower may be the jumping off point for later, more significant, projects.

Those who drive or bike past the wind tower will see that it is built adjacent to the “Cobb wind mill”, a small, old-fashioned windmill, which is, if not the prologue to a new age for wind power in Oberlin, proof that an interest in renewable energy is here to stay.

Related link:
Physics Department Wind Turbine Site

The wind tower in New Russia Township sits in a field near an old windmill.

The tower will help determine if Oberlin is suitable for wind turbines, like the one shown here.

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