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As Lansing Lags, a Rural School Looks Ahead

Benzie eyes wind power to save money, boost science classes

March 23, 2008 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  More schools around the world are viewing wind turbines as money-saving educational opportunities.

BENZONIA – Gary Waterson, the advanced placement science teacher at northwest Lower Michigan’s Benzie Central High School, doesn’t need a crystal ball to foretell the hot jobs of the future.

America obviously needs more highly trained medical specialists, he said, to care for its aging population. And communications innovation is a booming field in an Internet-enabled era where consumers spend big for tiny cell phones and iPods.

Then there’s the renewable energy industry: It is growing so fast that even leading companies can't find enough skilled labor to assemble basic equipment like wind turbines. The fresh, dynamic market offers lucrative opportunities for the brilliant minds that invent hyper-efficient technologies the world needs to keep energy costs affordable, the climate stable, and the planet at peace.

That is why Mr. Waterson is so excited by the possibility of building one or more wind turbines on his school’s property, which hugs a county road in rural Benzie County 30 miles west of Traverse City. He and Benzie Central administrators think installing windmills there would be a good way to build interest in math and physics, prepare students for 21st-century employment, and stem BCHS’s escalating operating costs.

"These turbines can get expensive," the science teacher said in a recent interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. "But if the research reveals this can be a self-paying system, and I have a hunch it will, this is an opportunity for us to prepare our kids for the global economy."

Benzie is the latest school hoping windmills can help cap rising energy costs. Their move bolsters what a rising stack of research papers, a small band of entrepreneurs, a handful of forward-thinking civic leaders, and a growing number of residents have said for at least five years: Energy innovation is essential to restoring Michigan's economic competitiveness, protecting its environmental health, and raising its quality of life.

That argument, however, has yet to win the day in the Michigan Legislature, which is struggling to pass legislation meant to help the state become a renewable energy leader. In fact, many green-power advocates point out that energy companies and leaders in Lansing are headed in the opposite direction: Companies are pushing for at least seven new or expanded coal-fired power plants here, and state lawmakers and the Granholm administration seem unconcerned about it.

The same advocates, including energy entrepreneurs who want to set up shop in the state, say that Michigan’s coal rush only reinforces the state’s entrenched 20th-century business model, which is fueling unemployment and budget shortfalls across the state. With Michigan still bereft of policies that encourage cleaner, increasingly cheaper, and more innovative forms of energy, the state remains years behind neighboring states like Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, which are developing alternative energy industries.

But now science teachers, school board members, and entire school districts are getting active in the debate over whether the state should or ever will act. Their push is the latest and perhaps most vivid expression yet of the broad-based movement for a modern energy agenda in Michigan. And it signifies the quickening of the educational evolution that experts say the state desperately needs to move from the dying Industrial Era to the thriving Digital Age.

Beyond Baby Steps
"What's holding us back in Michigan more than anything else is culture," Jim Croce, the CEO of NextEnergy, a nonprofit organization based in Detroit, recently told a gathering of green power proponents at Grand Valley State University, in Grand Rapids. "We need lots of creative entrepreneurs. They need to succeed and fail. We need dynamism. That's the secret to our success."

"But we also have this culture bearing down on us that's seeking to extend the status quo," Mr. Croce continued. "We're not embracing change. We're discouraging failure, lacking entrepreneurial dynamism. And we have obsolete energy and environmental policies that stifle demand [for] and discourage capital investment [in the renewable energy industry]. These are things that we're struggling with in the state."

Benzie County Central Schools, in fact, is a microcosm of Michigan's fundamental problems. The district is experiencing declining enrollment, for example, as the state loses population. Much like lawmakers in Lansing, school administrators here have struggled to balance their budget by slashing health care costs, restricting travel and spending on supplies, and putting off capital purchases.

And, just like residents, businesses, and local governments around the state, school officials also are dealing with rising energy costs: Last year's Benzie Central electric bill totaled $199,225. But forward-looking accountants budgeted $245,000 for 2008.

School officials said they act with urgency and creativity to confront escalating expenses and head off adversity. They've already done the basic things like powering down computer labs after school and modernizing lighting systems with timers. They partner with neighboring districts to share basic services, like transportation, and slash costs.

But, unlike the state Legislature, they are moving beyond baby-steps. Last month the school board established a task force and partnered with a Colorado-based renewable energy firm to spearhead a wind-power study on the school campus. The research involves gauging wind speeds on the property, calculating how much energy could be generated, and analyzing whether an investment in turbines makes sense.

"I believe BCCS can create long-term savings by further accelerating our energy conservation measures and by putting our physical assets to the highest and best use," said school board member and secretary Lynette Grimes. "The high school sits on 150 acres, part of which could be a wind farm potentially generating revenue for the district."

"We can use all the financial help we can get right now," Ms. Grimes added. "And schools can be used as a great tool to help gain public acceptance and build awareness of renewable energy systems."

Facing Michigan’s Fear
If the data and community support moving forward with the project, Benzie Central would join a small but growing number of local school districts now realizing significant returns from investments in wind power.

The two turbines spinning above an elementary school playground at Spirit Lake Community Schools in Iowa, for example, have basically eliminated the district's electric bill and today generate approximately $120,000 in revenues that fund general improvements. A small turbine turning at West Zeeland High School near Grand Rapids, Mich., has trimmed the monthly electric bill by $1,200.

And the Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Lakers School system, located in Michigan's Thumb region, recently installed three more turbines and reduced its overall electric bill by about one-third. The district now is adding a fifth turbine to power a greenhouse.

In fact, numerous Michigan school districts from Detroit to Traverse City now are considering investments in wind and solar power. But each proposed project also must overcome a deeply ingrained, statewide fear of adopting a modern energy agenda.

The dominant view—repeatedly expressed by state lawmakers resisting Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s call for mandating the generation of more green power—is that energy innovation will cost too much money, scare off new businesses, and ultimately kill the state's ability to grow jobs. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, who may be a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, also recently attacked the idea of a state-based push for green power.

Meanwhile, the state’s policies, spending, and incentives strongly favor coal plants and nuclear stations over wind farms or solar installations. That, experts say, makes successfully executing a renewable energy project much more complicated and difficult.

The debate, most clean energy advocates say, boils down to education.

With a turbine cranking electricity outside the classroom, Gary Waterson said teachers like him could do a better job introducing students to the global economic, environmental, and social issues driving the energy debate. They could have more meaningful discussions about the drawbacks and advantages associated with the range of available fuel sources.

The result, he said, would be a growing number of future citizens, workers, and leaders with a mindset and skills more likely to succeed in the modern world.

"One reason why Michigan is behind in the new economy is because we don’t do enough hands-on learning," Mr. Waterson said. "Anything hands-on raises test scores. When kids see it, they can start applying it. A wind turbine would provide more interesting hands-on learning opportunities for math, physics, earth science, and government, too. It could mark a new kind of beginning for both our school system and our students."

Andy Guy reports on Smart Growth issues from Grand Rapids.

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