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Virginia's First Wind for Schools Project: Wind Powering America Lessons Learned

June 21, 2011

An interview with Remy Luerssen, director of education and outreach at James Madison University's Virginia Center for Wind Energy, about Virginia's first Wind for Schools project.

In 2011, the first Wind for Schools project in Virginia was installed at Northumberland Middle/High School. What can you share with others about the process of this project?

The first Wind for Schools project in Virginia is a huge stepping stone! This project was a bit different from what we expect of future projects because it was fully funded by stimulus money through the U.S. Department of Energy and the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy. Because of that and the school's distance from James Madison University (JMU), we were not as involved as we would have liked. An installer helped with the project development, secured permits, and installed it. We intend to have more student (JMU and K-12) participation in project development in the future. But this installation is a great example that we can share with the next schools—we now have Virginia pics and Virginia data to share!

What did you learn about funding from this project, and what do you feel is important for others to know?

Funding is always an issue. It seems that when we find grant opportunities, the fact that Wind for Schools is a national program with a great concept gives our proposals credibility and fundability. But the grant process is slow, and we encourage schools to identify grant opportunities when applying in the spring for fall projects. Also, communities are very gracious and generous, so we encourage schools to use them for donating money, services, materials, and equipment. This also provides a sense of ownership in a community project. Finally, we insist on the school raising $1,000 to $4,000 of its own funds for the project—through bake sales, car washes, dances, or other creative ideas. This also provides a sense of ownership to ensure longevity of the project at the school.

An important facet of Wind for Schools projects is the curricula that will be introduced into the classroom. What lessons have you learned about this portion of the program, and what do you feel is important to share with others?

The curricula are in some ways the easiest part of the project and in other ways the hardest part. It is the easiest way to get schools involved at no cost with no equipment installed. However, ensuring that the curricula are used in the classroom is difficult. It is important not to overwhelm teachers with options and to be sure they understand how the activities address the needed standards of learning, or SOLs. Also, the curricula from WindWise and the National Energy Education Development Project are super, but holes still exist, and we have been working to develop curricula and other online resources to help. For example, the development of small modules for one to two class periods rather than workbooks that are intended to be used for weeks or months could be very helpful.

With the limited number of wind energy installations in Virginia, each Wind for Schools project has the potential to serve a dual purpose: education as well as encouraging community acceptance. What lessons do you have to share regarding this?

A turbine at a school is very visible as it is on public property and many will see it during sports events, while parents are picking up students, and during other community events there. It is a great way to make the community comfortable with alternative energy and see the benefits. There is a lot of misinformation out there about wind energy, evident from our recent meeting with the school board members. They were concerned that the turbine could fall down and injure a student or something like that. This is a great opportunity to inform the public. For example, we suggest that the school host a kick-off party and invite students, parents, teachers, administrators, and the community to come out and see the model turbine, hear presentations from the students about the projects, and ask questions of JMU, the installer, and the school champions. We are planning many for the fall in coordination with our next installations. Finally, we have talked about involving the students at the schools in a community perspective project in which we survey the community about how they feel about the project and wind energy in general, then invite them to the kick-off party and provide more information, and then re-survey to see if the kick-off party was helpful in educating the public.

Would you like to share any other lessons?

One more thing. Permitting for us in Virginia has become the largest hurdle. We have many counties and cities/towns with a 35-foot height restriction, and it is time consuming to get around this. Our advice is to start on this permitting process as soon as you know which schools you will work with that year. We have also found that some granting agencies will not fund a project unless the permits are in place, so that is another reason to start the permitting process ASAP!

—Julie Jones