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Union College's wind turbines are a teaching tool

Union College's wind turbines are a teaching tool

The three white wind turbines spinning on the sidelines of the Union College soccer fields aren’t of

The three white wind turbines spinning on the sidelines of the Union College soccer fields aren’t offsetting much in the way of energy costs, but they are earning their keep as an educational tool.

The 33-foot-tall, 1.2-kilowatt, vertical axis turbines were installed near the fields adjacent to College Park Hall in November 2010, at a cost of $35,000. Union officials had hoped to get some of that money back through federal grant programs, but that hasn’t happened, said Fred Puliafico, assistant director of facilities for Union College.

Rather than whirling like the blades of a windmill, the turbines’ blades stand upright, and the wind pushes them around a cylinder. They spin in the slightest breeze, but don’t begin producing energy until the wind speed reaches a minimum of eight miles per hour.

The electricity that’s produced is fed back into the electrical grid and the college is reimbursed by National Grid for the amount that’s generated. On average, it’s enough to supply between 30 and 35 percent of the electricity needed to fuel the four light poles that illuminate the soccer fields for night games, Puliafico said.

The annual cost savings is about $800, he estimated.

“If you were a homeowner and did this hoping to get a quick payback, it’s probably not the wisest thing to do, but when you couple the fact that it is producing electricity with the fact that we’re in a college environment where kids can learn from these things, it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Students regularly use the turbines as a research tool, Puliafico said.

“Right now we have a device that we plug into a laptop and we drive down by the turbines and it’ll tell you exactly what they’re putting out, and we have some students do some research on that, and compare it to the wind speed and see how much [electricity] they’re getting out of it and things like that,” he explained.

The college is working on a website that will allow students to see how much electricity the wind turbines are producing in real time, said Meghan Haley-Quigley, Union’s sustainability coordinator.

“There’s definitely an interest in having all forms of renewable energy on campus,” she said, noting that the college already has 10 or 11 geothermal wells and several solar arrays.

A hydro turbine, which uses moving water to produce energy, is a possibility for the future, she said.

The wind turbines and the other renewable energy sources used on campus send the message that the college is committed to sustainability, Puliafico pointed out.

Officials are looking into the possibility of installing a horizontal axis turbine — the more frequently seen type that looks like a windmill — on campus.

“The difficulty is the height. We have to make sure we don’t have to get up in the air too high. Plus, you need quite a bit of space around those, but we do have a couple of sites in mind,” he said.

The college is also considering installing vertical axis turbines, like the ones near the soccer fields, on some of the school-owned houses on Seward Place.

“There’s probably better ways to spend your money towards sustainability or free electricity, but we’re trying to expose the students to as many different technologies as possible and this is a very viable technology,” Puliafico said.

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