Monday, May 14, 2007
Students at two Northfield, Minn. colleges have given new meaning to trash talk. For Carleton College and St. Olaf College, the strongest rivalry is no longer on the football field or the basketball court. Both schools have shed their respective school colors and are instead engaged in a heated battle over just one color: green.
Historic Northfield is a community that greets visitors with a sign proclaiming the town is home to “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment.” Today, Northfield may need to update its signage to include a fourth “C”–conservation–as Carleton and St. Olaf struggle to foil the notorious new foe of carbon emissions.
In September 2004, Carleton finished construction on a 1.65 megawatt wind turbine in a field a few miles from the heart of campus, the first college to do so in America. In the spirit of the day, Carleton President Robert Oden Jr. jogged to the ceremony alongside students and faculty. The 350-foot tall behemoth carried an equally gargantuan price tag of $1.8 million. Nonetheless, there is little debate that constructing the turbine was a smart and bold investment for both environmental and economic reasons.
Carleton’s wind turbine is a major step toward transforming the campus into a bastion of sustainability. The energy it generates accounts for 40 percent of Carleton’s power usage. That slice of energy, which would otherwise arrive on campus from non-renewable, polluting sources, now powers dorm fridges and classrooms alike simply by capturing wafts of air with its massive blades. Over the expected 20-year life of the turbine, it will reduce the college’s carbon dioxide emissions by a colossal 1.5 million tons. In addition to carbon dioxide, it will also cut Carleton’s emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and mercury.
Financially, the college was able to offset $150,000 of the initial cost with a “community wind rebate” from the state of Minnesota. And while that still left Carleton swallowing a hefty bill, the college is slowly earning that money back. For every kilowatt-hour generated by the wind turbine, Xcel Energy pays Carleton 3.3 cents, while the Minnesota Department of Commerce pitches in an additional 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour. These seemingly meager sums will replenish the college’s coffers over time and eventually even turn a profit. With the windmill producing 4.8 million kWh in its inaugural year, the college expects that the cost of the wind turbine will be canceled out in 10 to 12 years of operation, just over half of its expected life.
Carleton’s turbine joins hundreds of others like it across southwestern Minnesota. With an abundance of wind, the region contributes 336 megawatts of wind power, with another 259 megawatts on the way in the next few years. St. Olaf recently followed Carleton’s lead and even upped the ante with the construction of their own turbine in September 2006. Much to the chagrin of “Carls,” the rival “Oles” were not only able to secure $1.5 million in funding from Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund for their incarnation of a wind turbine, but they also use a system that allows them to funnel the wind power directly to their campus grid rather than sell it to Xcel Energy, as Carleton does.