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Dueling Windmills: How two small liberal arts colleges are tackling climate change, one gust at a time | The Nation

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Dueling Windmills: How two small liberal arts colleges are tackling climate change, one gust at a time

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Brian Klaas

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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.

These differences have fueled the healthy green rivalry between the two colleges. Carleton can accurately boast to be a trendsetter with its construction of the first utility grade turbine in the nation, while St. Olaf can easily retort that they are the first in the nation to harness wind power directly. The bottom line is that the tiny, rural town of Northfield is now bracketed by two mammoth wind turbines. And now that both schools are on equal environmental footing, the real trash talk can begin.

Carleton senior Cailey Gibson, co-chair of Students Organized to Protect the Environment, had stinging words for St. Olaf, questioning the "Oles" commitment to sustainability: "We're hoping to make Carleton carbon neutral by 2020 and we'll be working with the administration, faculty, staff, and student body to make that idea a reality. Has St. Olaf got a plan for carbon neutrality?"

Gibson is referring to Oden Jr.'s recent signing of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, a document that binds the college to becoming carbon neutral. The ambitious commitment has already been signed by 160 college and university presidents--including five in Minnesota--but the signature of St. Olaf President David Anderson is conspicuously absent. Gibson, along with several other students in the Carleton Environmental and Technology Studies department, are designing the plan that will make Carleton carbon neutral by 2020.

Another Carleton senior working on the plan, Whit Jones, embraces the rivalry but recognizes that in spite of differences, both sides are winning: "I'm glad that campuses on both sides of the river are taking action. Climate change is the issue of our generation. We must take responsibility for our own pollutants"

At Carleton, the march toward sustainability is stronger than ever. Several environmental studies courses have designed and planned the construction of EcoHouse, a futuristic student residence that is virtually 100 percent sustainable. This large-scale initiative coincides with other green efforts such as returning Carleton's arboretum to natural prairie land, constructing a green roof on the science building, and introducing compact fluorescent bulbs across campus.

St. Olaf is not to be outdone, however, and is pushing conservation measures of its own. For example, their campus food service uses organic vegetables from STOWgrow, a sustainable farm. The leftover food from the cafeteria is then sent to a large compost on campus that is cycled back to fertilize the campus gardens. Amanda Rubasch, a sophomore at St. Olaf, adds, "We are still in the process of working toward an even more sustainable campus, but we are on the way. We will be especially proud to have a green science complex up and running in the years ahead."

Never before has a college rivalry produced so many winners. The surrounding community of Northfield is a cleaner, more livable town that has already begun to follow the colleges' lead and adopt its own sustainability projects.

In rural Minnesota, the winds of change are blowing.

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