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Feven Getachew
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Michael Lozada
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Harvey Wilhelm
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Wind farm project halted due to economic infeasibility

Three years after authorizing construction of a wind farm to develop renewable energy for the College, the Board of Trustees voted this month to discontinue plans to build three wind turbines due to an unanticipated complication in the process.

Before Grinnell could finalize its application for an interconnection agreement with its public utility company, Alliant Energy, which would allow construction to begin on the wind farm, Optimum Energy, a wind developer, applied first, giving it first priority over energy generated from the wind farm. And although Grinnell could continue with its project, under these unforeseen circumstances, it would not make economic sense for the College’s project to continue.

If Grinnell’s plan continued in addition to Optimum’s turbine, Alliant’s energy substation that serves Grinnell and the surrounding areas would often have to curtail Grinnell’s turbines. And because Optimum applied first for the interconnection agreement, Grinnell, not Optimum, would always be the first forced to curtail, limiting the wind farm’s economic viability.

The idea of another company interfering with Grinnell’s plans shocked those close to the project. Chris Bair ’97, Environmental and Safety Manager, said the College had no idea another group was applying for an interconnection agreement first, nor did they know that such an event could restrict Grinnell’s own plans.

“This is a pretty uncommon problem,” Bair said. “We had this whole list of things that we needed to accomplish. But getting our interconnection application in ahead of someone else’s was something we never knew mattered.”

The idea for a wind farm isn’t a new one—it began as a student project in 1996, but didn’t gain much traction until recently.

“Until President Kington signed the Presidential Climate Commitment [in 2011] and came on board, it was kind of like we were moving in quicksand,” Bair said on Wednesday at an event in ARH 102 for campus members interested in hearing about the project.

After Kington signed the commitment, which stated that the school would aim to reach carbon neutrality as soon as possible, the wind turbine project gained a lot of momentum and things began to fall into place.

The turbines were to be built three miles northeast of town and would require underground cables to get the energy to campus. The most challenging part of this aspect was land acquisition. The turbines were to be built on private property. Therefore, all those affected by the construction would need to be informed or compensated. Negotiations and re-negotiations to ensure fairness were constantly ongoing.

The College also had to work with organizations such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Union Pacific Railroad, whose railroad the cables would cross twice. But all of these efforts were for naught, as they were blindsided by Optimum’s application.

“As a college, we’re not renewable energy developers,” Bair said. “So we hire consultants essentially to hold our hand through it. And they didn’t even see it coming. It’s not an issue they’ve dealt with before.”

Under the original plan, investment on the turbines would have been fully returned in 15 years, which according to Bair, is not a great payback period. However, with the potential for curtailment, the payback period would be 20 to 30 years, which is roughly the lifetime of a turbine. This caused the project to become dangerously close to being an economic loss. However, Bair asserted that this was not the primary reason for the halt in plans.

“It was never truly an economic decision. We were always doing it for environmental reasons. But it had to make some economic sense,” he said.

This news means that any large-scale renewable energy project the College attempts will run into similar problems, which is a greater drag on the College’s sustainability efforts. Notably, even if other ideas were easy to implement, they wouldn’t provide as much energy as the wind project.

“There’s a reason we picked wind. It was the one that made the most economic sense,” Bair said. “There’s isn’t a Plan B that is just as economical as wind.”

The wind project would have cost $12 million and produced 90 percent of the College’s energy, whereas a large-scale solar option would cost $5 million but only provide 10 percent.

It may seem unfair that Grinnell’s wind farm would be curtailed when it likely wouldn’t produce more energy than it itself could use and Alliant agrees. However, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) does not. The IUB’s current policy would not allow Grinnell to continue with the project without curtailment. And although the College is considering lobbying the IUB to alter their rule, it is not an especially promising route at the moment.

After three years of hopeful planning, the recent turn of events has been devastating to the sustainability movement at the College.

“I think the stars aligned in exactly the wrong way,” Bair said.

For Liza Morse ’15, co-Chair of the Student Environmental Committee and a member of the Sustainability Planning Committee, it was disappointing to see the project fizzle, but she does not think this marks the end of Grinnell’s strive for sustainability.

“It’s pretty demoralizing,” Morse said. “But part of me is glad that if it was going to die, it didn’t come from the Trustees of the College. I’m disheartened, but I’m not angry because there are so many things in our way that there’s … nowhere to really direct that anger.”

Going forward, there is no clear-cut path. No project of the same magnitude as the wind farm project is feasible. But there are still several other projects that aim to help the College fulfill the President’s Climate Commitment. Starting in less than two weeks, the Building Projects Committee will meet to choose the design firm that will renovate and expand ARH and Carnegie. The decision will likely impact how sustainable the new building will eventually be.

Professor Liz Queathem, Biology, who was involved in the wind farm project, sees these meetings as other opportunities toward sustainability.

“This is our big chance to make something happen. Or at least to ask the kind of questions about sustainability that we hope will affect the process moving forward,” Queathem said.

Although the wind turbines will not become a reality for at least another decade or two, if ever, there are other ways to keep Grinnell sustainable, such as monitoring energy consumption, intelligent landscaping and building and renovating in eco-friendly ways. However, Morse noted one major way Grinnell students could work to improve sustainability: staying passionate.

“There seems to be a lot of apathy on campus. People don’t seem to have the fire that I expect of Grinnell students,” she said. “But I think not becoming apathetic in the face of defeat is really important.”

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