PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The process of installing a wind turbine at the University of Maine at Presque Isle was a lot like navigating a traffic jam.
There were lots of starts and stops, periods where the process flowed continually, and times when officials did not think they were going to get anywhere at all.
But they did get somewhere, and this month marks the first anniversary of the official commissioning of the university’s 600-kilowatt windmill.
More than 70 people attended a ceremony on May 14, 2009, to officially dedicate the windmill, which is 90 meters tall.
The university became the first university campus in the state — and one of only a handful in New England — to install a midsize wind turbine to generate power.
The project was financed by UMPI’s internal savings, together with a $50,000 grant from the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
While there have been some minor glitches with the windmill in the past year, Don Zillman, the president of UMPI, and David St. Peter, the director of the physical plant at UMPI, said recently that the turbine is living up to its expectations.
“We had four objectives for this project,” Zillman said during a recent interview. “We wanted to make the campus more green, we wanted to save on power, we wanted to make the windmill a part of our educational program and we wanted this project to serve as a community resource.
“By that, I mean that we wanted others who were thinking about doing the same thing to come and see what we’d done and hear about the process and get information about how to go about it if they wanted to,” he added.
“We feel we have accomplished all four of those objectives,” he said. “The process from thinking of getting the windmill to actually getting it operating was difficult at times, but I believe we made a great decision.”
Jared Monahan of Brownville just completed his junior year at UMPI. The biology and environmental science major said Sunday that there was a small group of students who did not like the idea of a windmill on campus when the news was first announced, because they thought it would mess up the aesthetics of the campus.
“But since the windmill went up, I haven’t heard anyone complain about it,” Monahan said. “Lots of students on campus are ecofriendly, so this is a huge benefit.”
Jessica Littlefield, a recreation and leisure student from Presque Isle who just completed her sophomore year, agreed.
“I haven’t heard any complaints,” she said Sunday. “I don’t think its too loud or anything. I think its pretty cool. I was worried at first about birds, but it hasn’t been a problem. I think that a lot of students like it and the school is saving money, which is a good thing for all of us.”
University officials originally explored the idea of wind power in 2004, and the project kicked into high gear after Zillman assumed the presidency two years later. Before Zillman’s arrival on campus, a study of wind resources on campus had begun, but a decision on whether to move forward with a wind project had not been solidified.
Zillman came to campus with 30 years of study and teaching in the field of energy law and policy, and a portion of that work involved renewable energy resources. With Zillman at the helm, the university announced plans in May 2007 to install a wind turbine on campus for the generation of clean electricity.
Before the announcement, campus officials talked with faculty, staff and students about the project.
“We were regularly checking in with students, faculty and staff during this whole process, and they pushed us to go ahead with it,” said Zillman. “The community was the same way, as well as city officials.”
Campus officials said they anticipated that the turbine they were considering would produce about 1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year and save the institution more than $100,000 annually in electricity charges. Once fully operational, the turbine was expected to save an estimated 572 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere each year.
At the time of the announcement, the campus already had broken ground on the project and a road leading to the planned site.
After the announcement came the “dirty work,” Zillman said.
“If you are easily frustrated, you probably would not want to go through the process of installing one of these types of windmills,” he acknowledged. “It was not a smooth, easy process. To do this, you have to be patient and kind of roll with the punches until you see it through.”
There were several daunting challenges in the beginning, Zillman recalled, including the contracting and permitting process.
“One of our biggest challenges was finding a place where we could order the turbine and also finding someone to install it,” he said, adding that even major general contractors in the state did not have significant experience conducting such a project. “I like to say that you can’t just go into Wal-Mart, grab a cart and walk out with a wind turbine and power. We really had to search for a contractor that could do the job for us at the price that we were authorized to spend.”
Zillman said the search for a contractor began in the fall of 2007, and the university ran into problems. Some bidders could not fulfill all of the needs of the project, and bidders intimated the work might cost UMPI more than the $2 million allocated for the project.
University officials worked through the problems, however, including securing all of the necessary permits from state, federal and local agencies. In November 2008, the campus reached an agreement with general contractor Lumus Construction Inc. They agreed to move forward on the $2 million project to install the wind turbine approximately 30 yards from the UMPI baseball fields.
The blades and nacelle, which is the gearbox to facilitate blade movement, were manufactured in Chennai, India. The turbine tower was made in the U.S.
Just before Christmas of that year, UMPI officials received word that the wind turbine was ready to be shipped to campus.
Vision becomes reality
By mid-March 2009, all three tower sections arrived and were lying close to the tower base. On April 14, the blades and other equipment were rolling up U.S. Route 1 toward campus. By April 19, the installation of the tower was complete.
On May 15, a whipping wind welcomed more than 70 guests to the university as UMPI officially commissioned its new windmill. The ceremony took place on a day in which a high-wind warning was in effect across several parts of the state. Officials decided to hold the bulk of the ceremony inside, fearing the wind would drown out any words spoken about the momentous occasion. Guests hunched over, bracing themselves against the gusts, and clutched hats and sunglasses to keep them from being blown away when the ceremony briefly moved outside.
“We were actually kind of nervous about the wind that day,” Zillman recalled. “But we were told that the turbine can sustain winds of at least 60 mph.”
After speeches and a ribbon cutting at the turbine site, Zillman walked into the tower control room of the windmill, pressed a button, and the blades began to turn.
The audience burst into cheers, clapping enthusiastically and offering hoots and squeals of delight.
“That was a great day,” St. Peter said.
The first year
Although the turbine began spinning in mid-May, Zillman said officials “really view July 1, 2009, as the power bill comparison measure.”
From July 1, 2009, to the end of March 2010, the university has seen $85,000 in savings because of the windmill, according to the president.
“We are close to saving the $100,000 annually in electricity charges that we initially projected,” he said. “We feel we might even do better than that as time goes on.”
Still, Zillman said UMPI really wants to wait five years to get an accurate reading of how the project is working.
The data gathered by the university are collected by a box in the turbine, which St. Peter called “the brains of the machine.”
“The box gives us its output, wind speed and direction, temperature and more,” he said. “This really has been a wonderful machine. It has been functional 96 percent of the time, and we’ve had no major mechanical problems.”
Zillman said the college initially was worried about how the turbine would do in cold weather.
“We shouldn’t have,” he acknowledged. “It has been working on even the bitterest days.”
The college has a two-year warranty on the windmill and officials from Lumus are always available if a problem arises, Zillman said.
The only time the windmill is not running is if there is not enough wind or if it is undergoing routine maintenance. St. Peter said he has seen it generate power even when the wind is as low as 10 mph.
Both Zillman and St. Peter said they’ve heard “few complaints” about the turbine.
“The students haven’t complained, and the community has been the same way,” said Zillman. “We’ve had no complaints about noise or shadow flicker.”
Zillman acknowledged that some community members were concerned that birds might be harmed or killed if they ran into the windmill.
“That hasn’t been a problem,” he said. “I believe they have found one bat who may have been a casualty of the turbine, but no birds or other flying creatures have been injured or killed.”
“This is not to say that we are complaint free, because I know that people talk amongst themselves about it and I’ve seen some concerned letters to the editor [in newspapers],” Zillman said. “But we try as much as we can to keep the community abreast of this project and its effect on our campus and the environment.”
Zillman and St. Peter say the windmill not only has served the college, it also has become an educational tool for students at UMPI, Northern Maine Community College and local schools.
In September 2008, NMCC launched a first-of-its-kind program in New England geared toward training wind power technicians to operate, maintain and repair wind turbine generators. Zillman said NMCC students in the wind power technology program regularly come to the UMPI campus to study the turbine and learn from its data.
This January, two meteorological towers were set up in SAD 1 in Presque Isle. One of the towers is in the northeast corner of the ball fields at Presque Isle Middle School. Another is on farmland near Mapleton Elementary School.
The towers will stay up for a year. If the data they provide are favorable, the district could consider using windmills to power Mapleton Elementary School and Presque Isle Middle School.
Zillman said the college has no intention of keeping data about its windmill a secret. In order to be as transparent as possible, the university’s website features a first-of-its-kind online program that displays up-to-the-minute data points about UMPI’s turbine. College officials worked with the turbine manufacturer, turbine contractor and Honeywell Corp. to secure and operate the instrumentation that allows detailed measurements to be transmitted online.
The data include the latest wind speed figures and power generation in kilowatt-hours. All of that information and more is accessible at www.umpi.edu/wind and clicking on “Live Turbine Data.”
This spring, the university began offering the first of what is says will be many energy courses to students and community members. The first three courses being offered are energy law and public policy, sustainability management, and energy fuels. The classes marked the beginning of an Energy and Sustainability Concentration in UMPI’s academic programming. This fall, several more energy-related courses, including classes focusing on climate change and renewable energy, will be offered up for students and community members interested in the subjects.
Students from area schools also come often for tours, according to St. Peter.
The windmill, Zillman said, is just the first of many projects UMPI will undertake to be as “green” as possible.
The campus has formed a Green Committee made up of UMPI professionals looking at ways to make the university more environmentally friendly.
Last October, campus officials learned the college had secured $800,000 in federal funding for a solar energy initiative. The money will fund the design and installation of photovoltaic solar panel arrays that help convert solar energy into electricity. The university also will establish an automated weather station to collect information on solar radiation levels. The station will provide baseline data for future use of solar energy, while also promoting undergraduate research.
The overall project will reduce electrical energy costs to the university, eliminate or reduce the need for additional air conditioning and provide a research and educational focus for the campus.
The project is still in the planning stages, but Zillman said the combination of the windmill and the solar panels on campus “will allow us to see a fantastic combination of energy efficiency and energy savings.”
The campus also has taken additional smaller steps to decrease energy use, such as using an energy-efficient system to heat the swimming pool in Gentile Hall and planting more flowers on campus to decrease the amount of lawn that needs to be mowed to save gas and reduce emissions.
Zillman said he hopes that the success of one rural campus in the University of Maine System will have a systemwide ripple effect.
“I would hope that others see what we have done and take a look at what they can do along the same vein, no matter how big or small,” he said. “Maybe it’s a tidal project, or a solar project.
“Maybe it’s just recycling more and urging students to do the same. That could lead to the students teaching their friends, their parents, their children, to do the same,” he said. “Reducing your carbon footprint is something that everyone should be concerned about.”