St. Olaf Wind Turbine Case Study

For decades, Saint Olaf College has been thinking carefully about its energy consumption and impacts on the environment. On the 19th of September 2006, a 1.65 megawatt turbine became a symbol of its commitment to sustainability.

Pete Sandberg, the man who spearheaded the college's effort to erect its own turbine, came to St. Olaf in the 1980s and currently serves as the Assistant Vice President for Facilities. Since he arrived at St. Olaf, Sandberg has been involved in numerous efforts to reduce the college's impact on the environment. As early as the 1980s, St. Olaf considered restoring its land to the condition it was in before European settlement. Long before the current level of concern about climate change, Sandberg and his colleagues realized that sequestering carbon in the soil and vegetation would have been an added benefit of this conservation and restoration initiative.

An Independent Grid

In the 1990s, St. Olaf took proactive steps to upgrade its electrical supply and distribution system. In 1999, the college installed three diesel generators, which can produce up to 4.2 megawatts of electricity. St. Olaf also upgraded its internal electrical distribution system from to a 13.8kV line that loops through campus in an underground tunnel. Thanks to these investments, St. Olaf can provide electricity to almost all of its buildings even in the event of a blackout. The ability to do so allows the college to qualify as an interruptible customer and to take advantage of lower rates from its electric utility, Xcel Energy. As a result, the college saves about $150,000 every year on its electricity costs. In addition to benefiting from lower energy bills, these investments later played a key role in helping St. Olaf optimize the use of its own wind turbine.

The Seed Was Planted

In the early 2000s St. Olaf began to explore a future for wind energy on its campus, and the idea of installing a wind turbine grew out of both conviction and practicality. At the time, the college was in the early stages of planning a new 100,000 square-foot science center that would consume a significant amount of electricity. Despite pursuing LEED certification and maximizing energy efficiency, Sandberg and staff had been left to wonder how they might further reduce the operating cost impact of adding this new building to the campus grid. On-site renewable generation emerged as a potential alternative to buying more electricity from Xcel.

Plans for the wind turbine gained momentum in 2003. That spring, Honor the Earth and the Indigo Girls came to St. Olaf to launch a national tour aiming to raise money and create a groundswell of awareness and support for wind projects on Native American lands. The event also generated interest among students to begin exploring how they might sustainably harness wind energy on their campus. Little did they know, Sandberg was already one step ahead, having passed on to the administration an initial proposal to construct four wind turbines at St. Olaf.

Getting the Money and the Machine

Planning for the wind turbine began in earnest when Sandberg applied to the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund in response to their second request for proposals in 2004. While St. Olaf ultimately received funding, this proved to be a mixed blessing. While the college waited for the Public Utilities Commission to approve their grant contract, the federal government renewed the production tax credit which unleashed a burst of wind energy development activity. As a result of the high demand and tight supply, what Sandberg originally projected to be a $1.9 million project rose to over $2.5 million. Undeterred, St. Olaf gladly accepted the $1.5 million grant and paid upfront for the remaining costs out of their capital operating budget.

The Economic Benefits

St. Olaf worked with Windlogics, a wind resource assessment company, and determined a feasible site less than a quarter of a mile northwest of campus. The proximity made it economically feasible to connect the wind turbine to the campus' internal distribution loop, which paid off in a major way. By interconnecting with the campus grid, St. Olaf is able to consume the wind-generated electricity on-site and therefore reduce their energy imports from Xcel. The school only sells excess wind energy to Xcel at night and during break periods, when campus demand is low.

This arrangement translates into a significant financial advantage. Instead of selling their entire production to Xcel for the standard small wind tariff of 3.3 cents/kWh, St. Olaf reduces its purchases from Xcel which are set at a rate of 6.2 cents/kWh. As a result, the school is able to save about $250,000 per year on electricity bills. Since this dwarfs the $36,000 in operation and maintenance that the school pays in its service contract for the turbine, St. Olaf expects to recuperate its initial capital investment four to five years after the turbine blades began to spin.

Bumps in the Road

The road to acquiring their own turbine has not been without surprises or setbacks. While awaiting a decision from the Renewable Development Fund, not only did the project's capital costs spike, but the company from which St. Olaf originally planned to purchase a turbine, NEG Micon, was acquired by Vestas. Consequently the school had to re-enter negotiations with Vestas and ultimately sign a more expensive service contract. Accepting the grant set limits on St. Olaf in other ways, too. One of the conditions required St. Olaf to pass all environmental attributes of the wind energy, sometimes called green tags or renewable energy credits, to Xcel. Furthermore, St. Olaf was also not eligible for the Minnesota Renewable Energy Production Incentive, which ceased accepting new applicants in 2005. A final surprise came after the turbine went up and production numbers failed to meet the projections. Initial estimates projected 6 million kWh of energy would flow from the turbine each year, but annual figures to date have averaged about 4.5 million kWh-roughly a quarter of the school's yearly electricity consumption. Luckily, though, this underperformance has not significantly impacted the financial viability of the project, which remains on-schedule to pay for itself by 2011.

Overall, Pete Sandberg considers the St. Olaf wind turbine an unequivocal success. It stands tall as a source of pride for the school and a highly visible symbol of the college's commitment to the environment. The wind turbine also offers learning opportunities for professors to incorporate into their courses. Sandberg is regularly called upon to give tours to groups who come to learn about wind energy from greater Northfield and beyond. Indeed, St. Olaf serves as a model for many other campuses around the country that contact Sandberg to learn how they might replicate his success. Although St. Olaf currently has no plans to add another turbine, the one they already have is not likely to fade into oblivion. The campus plans to transform the site of the turbine into a living model of sustainability. Student groups will practice organic agriculture on some of the surrounding farmland, and nearby a new building covered in solar panels will house art studios and produce enough electricity to meet on-site needs and feed excess into the St. Olaf grid.

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