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Camden Hills Regional High School's WindPlanners: Wind Powering America Lessons Learned

September 5, 2012

The WindPlanners are a group of students at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, Maine, who had a goal of installing a wind turbine on their campus. A total of 100 students worked on the project over the years. The turbine was erected in March 2012, after the WindPlanners dedicated 8 years to conducting research, securing school board permission and town permits, and raising $500,000 to make their dream a reality. According to the students, the turbine should save the school about $18,000 in electricity costs this year. Wind Powering America interviewed Margo Murphy of the Camden Hills Science Department to learn more about the wind turbine project.

Describe the history of this wind turbine project.

The Camden Hills Regional High School wind project began about 9 years ago when a group of students, staff, and community members gathered to discuss ways to improve energy consumption at the high school. Many ideas were brainstormed and explored, and the possibility of a wind turbine was discussed. One of the community members had worked in alternative energy for many years. He connected us with the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Wind Energy Research Center and James Manwell. We received a grant from them to erect a meteorological tower (MET tower) to measure the wind speed and direction on the school campus and on a nearby mountaintop. Students worked closely with the town to create an ordinance that would allow the 140-foot MET tower to be erected.

During the data collection phase, students kept the school board and public informed about why they were collecting data and how they would use the data. After 14 months of data collection, correlation analysis with some of the advanced math students, and some support from UMass, we determined that we had enough of a wind resource to justify a community-scale wind turbine. At that time we were looking at refurbished Bergey wind turbines to fit our original budget of $200,000.

At the 4-year mark, we had concept approval from the school board, the town had an ordinance that would allow us to put up a turbine, and we had our data to support the project. As we researched Bergey turbines, we learned about Northern Power's launch of a wind for schools program and the Northwind 100 machine. We were interested in the direct magnetic-drive system; there were no other wind turbines in the state with this technology (which makes the turbine quiet and kick in at lower wind speeds). This turbine is ideal for a school campus without a strong wind resource. We visited a school and hotel with Northwind turbine installations. The Northwind turbine would cost more, but the students were dedicated to increasing our fundraising to pay for the more expensive machine.

We met with Northern Power and a contractor installer to determine our budget. With a new target of $500,000, fundraising efforts accelerated. Students who joined the WindPlanners at that point became skilled at grant writing, presenting to public groups, and attending events to spread the word. In year 6, we had more than $250,000 in the bank.

Then a community member challenged our wind resource analysis, rallying everyone who would listen. Up to this point, the students presented from the perspective of social and environmental responsibility; now they had to defend the project with science. It was a critical shift for the group. We again consulted with UMass, and they provided us with a state-of-the-art wind surface analysis and a third-party review of our original analysis. We received the report from them a day before we needed to present to the school board. We expected the board to withdraw support.

The students carefully prepared a data presentation for the board, which lasted more than 2 hours. It was a professional presentation, and the board voted 11 for and 0 against the project moving forward. It was also an extremely important turning point for the students because the victory was based on evidence and good science. The students quickly rallied to begin the permitting process and ramp up fundraising.

All neighbors were invited to attend a public question-and-answer period prior to permitting. The town granted the permit in December 2010. We began electrical and civil engineering for the project.

In the late fall and early winter of the 2011/2012 school year, a new school board member raised the issue of noise. He felt that we had not done our due diligence to investigate the noise issue, and the people he had consulted with felt this turbine was too large for the school campus. The students gathered data, talked to turbine owners, and once again prepared a presentation to the school board. During the 2-hour presentation, the students again convinced the board that the NorthWind was the right turbine for this school. The board voted 11 for and 1 against the project.

Following this board meeting, we broke ground in January 2012. The foundation was poured in February, and our ribbon-cutting celebration took place on March 31.

What fundraising mechanisms were utilized over the 8 years prior to installing the turbine? What lessons can you share?

We used a variety of fundraising mechanisms, including:

  • Grant writing to private foundations (amounts varied from $500 to $40,000)
  • Grant writing to public sources, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Environmental Protection Agency, etc. ($50,000 from these sources)
  • A letter-writing campaign to all taxpayers in the five towns that send students to our school
  • A major donors' campaign. This was critical, and we worked closely with our non-profit school organization Friends of the CSD to help us
  • Anonymous donors. Three contributed at critical junctures to keep momentum
  • Lots of small community outreach fundraisers (hosting a pancake breakfast, selling smoothies at a local greenfair, etc.)
  • In-kind donations (lodging for workers, skilled labor, etc.).

There are lots of different models. Our model was that we would have the money to pay for the entire project before we installed and that the school district would own this turbine. We could not have raised this money if we did not have people experienced in fundraising to help advise us. We also have community members who have regularly donated to support the schools. Identifying these people and rallying their support is important. Once we taught students the elements of a grant and how to search for grants, they became grant-writing machines. We averaged one successful grant for every nine grants we submitted. Fundraising was an incredible skill to develop.

How did you choose an installer? What lessons can share from this portion of the project?

This is certainly a big lesson. We originally selected a local company that had installed a few commercial machines. They gave us a preliminary cost, which we used for our original budget. We signed a contract to purchase the turbine from them and gave them the first payment. They knew this was a different model, being a student-led project, and that we had to have the funds before we could begin. As we neared fundraising completion, the cost increased way above any number we had ever talked about. We unsuccessfully tried to negotiate; we then chose another company that had installed several Northwind 100 wind turbines. We talked to people who had used this installer. We also wanted an installer who was willing to work with our local people because some of them donated time and skilled labor.

It is really important to know that your installer has experience. If they don't have the experience, then costs must be clearly spelled out in the contract. Some costs are extra because you are new to installation (for example, a template ring), and it can drive the price up if you don't know about these first-time costs.

How did you determine the location of the wind turbine? What lessons were learned during this phase of the project?

Our MET tower was close to the school, which influenced the data. We thought that we had a more suitable site between the baseball and soccer fields, and we planned to place the turbine there. When we got the wind surface analysis, we discovered that the windiest part of our campus was on the other side of the soccer field. It was also closer to the school, reducing the electrical and road construction costs.

Having access to wind surface analysis data is fabulous. If there's a way for schools to access this service for free, it would be a tremendous asset to helping determine whether schools are candidates for turbines.

Describe the zoning process for the turbine. What types of height restrictions or setbacks did the project have to acquiesce to?

The town of Rockport did not have ordinances to address installing a tower when this project began. The students worked with the planning board to establish an ordinance that initially allowed the MET tower to be installed and then later to allow the permanent tower to be installed. The students were a critical part of this process because their passion really influenced town leaders. Because we wrote the ordinance with the town, we established the height restriction based on the tower heights of 100-kilowatt turbines.

—Julie Jones