November 25, 2003

Wind Power at Cornell?

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Everyone knows that Ithaca is windy, just as much as it is “gorges.”

But is Ithaca windy enough to sustain a wind farm? As members of Kyoto Now! campaign for Cornell to build its own wind farm, that question remains unanswered. In the meantime, wind power is stirring up discussion from Cape Cod to our own backyard.

On Oct. 16, the environmental activist group Kyoto Now! launched their new campaign, Wind Power Now! Their goal is to build a Cornell-owned wind farm in Ithaca that will supply ten percent of the University’s energy. This wind farm will either have two or seven wind turbines, depending on their power output.

Kyoto Now! ran a similar campaign last year to persuade the University to buy ten percent of its energy as wind power. But the administration didn’t support the idea, because it would be an annual cost that would never pay itself off.

However, the administration is backing the newest effort so far. Originally, they said that building a wind farm wouldn’t be possible because of legal concerns as a non-profit. But after Carleton College in Minnesota built a wind farm, Lanny Joyce ’81, manager of engineering, planning and energy management in the department of utilities and energy management, agreed to the idea.

Currently, the administration has dedicated 8,000 to 12,000 dollars towards feasibility studies for the project.

“If they put up that much, than they’re interested in the results,” said Tristan Jackson ’05, president of Kyoto Now! “I think that all it ever had to do was make economic sense.”

The utilities department is currently in the process of choosing an environmental firm to site the turbines. Kyoto Now! is also going to conduct its own studies. Although neither have begun yet, Kyoto Now! hopes to have data before the end of the spring semester.

Generally, costs pose the biggest problem with a venture of this size. According to Kyoto Now!’s estimates, the entire project will cost between 12 and 15 million dollars. This price includes the cost of the wind turbines, installation, and connections to the electrical grid.

However, this price may go down if the University partners with General Electric, a major wind turbine manufacturer. GE hopes to test out their 3.6-megawatt wind turbine on land, according to Jackson. The largest that GE makes, these 3.6 MW turbines are already used in European offshore wind farms. If the company chooses to support Cornell, it may give the school a discount on the turbines.

In addition to this cooperative effort, Kyoto Now! hopes to garner financial support from independent contributors, so they can avoid tapping into the University’s budget. These donors would buy shares of the wind farm, gain from the renewable energy tax benefits and then give the turbines to Cornell for a minimal fee.

Even if the cost does come out of the University’s utilities budget, the administration believes that it will be worth the investment.

“If we own the asset, it makes more sense. You can claim the environmental benefit long term,” Joyce said.

The wind turbines will have two major financial benefits, according to Kyoto Now! They will produce energy that the University will not have to buy and lessen Cornell’s reliance on increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

Another major limitation for the project, though, will be the physical site for the wind turbines. Kyoto Now! is currently considering Mt. Pleasant, the highest point in Tompkins County, as a site. It is about five miles east of the campus, owned by the University and near a high-tension wire that can connect the turbines to the main power grid.

However, the wind is truly what can make or break a site. For a wind farm to be profitable, a site must have steady eight to 12 mile per hour winds.

Although the aerodynamics of turbines seem like they would be simpler than those for airplanes, they are actually far more complicated, according to Prof. Zellman Warhaft, mechanical and aerospace engineering and faculty advisor for Kyoto Now!

“Wind [turbines are] working under variable load and variable direction,” he said, explaining the wind’s unpredictability.

The surveyors will analyze the wind’s direction, speed and irregularity over time and different altitudes at Mt. Pleasant. A small change in wind speed can result in a large change in power output.

Warhaft said that he would need data to accurately estimate a site, but seemed hopeful.

“The anecdotal evidence is that we could supply some energy

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