Ann Arbor's $1.4M wind turbine project intended to educate community about renewable energy
The exact location hasn't been determined yet, but the idea is to install up to two wind turbines as demonstrations on school property, said Brian Steglitz, a senior utilities engineer for the city.
The Ann Arbor City Council voted 10-0 Monday night to accept and appropriate up to $951,500 in federal grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy for the project.
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"I am pretty excited about doing this," agreed Council Member Margie Teall, D-4th Ward. "I don't think we have a lot to lose. In terms of alternative energy, the time is now the time was yesterday."
Steglitz said the size of the turbines hasn't been decided yet, but theoretically they could be 100 to 150 feet high with 30-foot spinning blades.
He told council members he didn't have potential sites that he could share with them, though some are speculating it's most likely to be at a high school — either Skyline, Huron or Pioneer.
"We've been talking to the school system and they have some ideas," Steglitz said. "But at this point, since we have not determined any sites that we're necessarily going to move forward with studying, we've been asked by them not to make those sites publicly available at this point."
The grant has an end date of June 30, 2014. Steglitz said the construction would have to be completed by then under the requirements of the grant.
"We have a timeline and it's aggressive, but it's doable," he said, acknowledging city officials have had only preliminary discussions with AAPS so far.
"They were very excited when we approached them," he said, "They'll get a little bit of a financial benefit from the wind turbine because they're going to be guaranteed a price for power which is less than their current costs, so there's one incentive there.
"They think this is going to be an educational tool for the school system, their kids," he added. "They have programs within the schools that look at technology and this sort of fits into some of their goals and their science curriculum and things like that. For those reasons, they're excited to participate."
The grant requires a $484,390 local match, but city officials have found a way around making a cash contribution. It's the city's intent to partner with AAPS and the developer to provide the site and financing required for the match, so the city's contribution will be $18,590 in staff time.
Steglitz said the council will be asked at a future meeting to approve agreements with AAPS and the site developer. He revealed at Monday's meeting that Wind Products Inc., based in Brooklyn, NY., is the private developer the city expects to provide the local match for the project.
Council Member Jane Lumm, an Independent who represents the 2nd Ward, was one of a handful of council members who expressed caution Monday night.
Lumm was particularly concerned that the city was taking on a new environmental project on top of a number of ongoing initiatives related to public transit. She said she feared the city is trying to tackle too many projects at once with limited resources and not focusing enough on core services.
Lumm said she feared the council could find out later on it's going to cost the city significantly more money than planned.
"There are risks and costs here," she said before ultimately voting for the project along with the rest of her colleagues.
Council Member Sally Hart Petersen, D-2nd Ward, also had concerns but said she wanted to see AAPS and the city work together more.
Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, relayed concerns she's heard that Ann Arbor isn't a good location for wind energy generation.
"We don't have the steady 13- or 14-mph winds that you really need in order to make this work. Our average wind is under 10 mph," she said, going on to ask: "Why are we doing this here?"
Steglitz said the purpose of the project is not to construct a wind farm, but to demonstrate the viability of wind technology and use it as an educational tool for the community.
"I don't think that we are, as a city, indicating that we think Ann Arbor has this great wind resource and we want to tap into it," Steglitz said. "What this is really about is educating the community about renewable sources of energy. And to have a wind turbine in the city, which is sort of a monument to renewable energy, sort of speaks a little bit to the community's goals and interests."
Steglitz said it will provide a hands-on tool for AAPS to teach students about wind energy.
"If everything sort of falls into place, our ideal scenario would be to build two turbines with two different technologies, and there would be some educational components," he said. "There would be a web-based tool where you could go online and see which one's generating what and interact with them."
It's expected the developer will construct the turbines and provide the public schools with a 20-year power purchase agreement that would help AAPS save on electricity costs. Meanwhile, the city would obtain renewable energy credits from the installation.
Mayor John Hieftje said his enthusiasm for the project lately, in part, has come from the third-party comments he's heard. He said he had a good conversation with a local high school science teacher who is excited about the possibility of having a working clean energy lab right outside the school.
"We may have new turbine designers 10 years from now who earned their chops right here at a high school in Ann Arbor," he said. "It's a pretty exciting chance."
Council Member Stephen Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, said he expects the school board to deal with some of the remaining concerns about where the turbines will go and how the community will respond. Since it's going to be on school property, he said, it would have been short-sighted on the council's part if it didn't give AAPS the chance to consider the issue.
"Really it sounds like we're going to be handing off to the Ann Arbor Public Schools board and they're going to be making some more of the salient decisions," he said.
Steglitz said AAPS had wanted to put a wind turbine at Skyline a while back, but that fell through. The city also was partnering with the University of Michigan on a wind energy partnership that fell through, and so it worked out for the city and AAPS to forge a new partnership.
The city's initial grant application in 2009 identified the city's Water Treatment Plant as a potential recipient of the power generated.
Steglitz said a $35,000 environmental assessment and about $300,000 worth of outreach and education as part of the project are 100 percent covered by the grant and don't require matching funds. The outreach/educational component will be overseen by the city but subcontracted out to the project developer. Potential additional partners include the Ecology Center and AAPS.
Steglitz said the $18,590 in staff time included in the budget reflects the time commitment to manage the project start to finish, oversee the public outreach/education program, purchasing, construction oversight, and federal reporting requirements. Legal support is not included.
He said the $18,590 actually represents only 50 percent of the estimated staff costs, but the city will be reimbursed for half its staff costs.
Council Member Mike Anglin, D-5th Ward, was absent.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.