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Friday, May 6, 2016

SC split, but wind will power school

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

$825,000 project survives 3-2 vote

A Sioux Central School Board divided by worries over cost has narrowly voted to adopt wind power for the K-12 school at Sioux Rapids, becoming one of the first clean-energy powered complete school systems.

A public hearing was held recently to hear residents' concerns over the proposed purchase of a wind turbine. With only a few people attending the hearing and after hearing pros and cons on the subject, the board opted to proceed with the vote, which was 3-2 in favor of going to wind power.

"There is an absolutely important environmental message to it," Meier said. "By doing this, we will be giving our students a lesson in how to conserve our earth's resources and how to be environmentally responsible. We do not want to lose sight of that," Superintendent Bonnie Meier said. She introduced a battery of wind experts that had been invited to answer questions for the public. On hand were representatives from Alliant Energy, Micon, the Iowa Energy Bank, district attorney Keith Thompson and Thomas Wind, the engineer from Wind Utility Consulting.

Mel Pitts, board president, made the initial motion to approve the purchase. The motion had a second by Mark Sickelka, but Paul Thomsen asked that an amendment to the motion be attached, asking that the public be give the chance to vote on an instructional support levy to help fund the project. Such a levy could offset the projected financial losses of the development in its first few years. The amendment failed.

The original motion was supported by Melvin Pitts, Mark Sickelka and Carol Hermstad. Declining votes were Paul Thomsen and Kevin Ehlers.

Wind Utility Consulting experts assured the board that the wind turbine scenarios they had prepared and presented were conservative. Renewable energy sources are strongly supported in the Iowa statehouse and the consultants feel that incentives will be there for the board to assist in the project, and remain in place through the life of the system.

The board then voted to adopt the resolution starting the process of issuing up to $825,000 in Energy Improvement Management School capital notes. Again in favor were Sickelka, Hermstad and Pitts. Voting no were Ehlers and Thomsen.

Experts predict the Sioux Central district should see the wind turbine pay for itself in energy savings within as little as eight years, but Meier said that she expects that about 10 years would be a feasible expectation.

Current projections call for a school complex with wind completely replacing current electrical sources will save at least $38,000 per year. The school energy needs now total $86,000 per year. Over the 25 year life expectancy of the turbine, the school would save 1.5 million dollars based on the current study. Board members indicated that these savings would provide for additional resources to be targeted directly into classroom education goals.

Alliant Energy is currently required to buy back the energy that is over-produced at the school at a state mandated rate. This will offset the maintenance costs that come with wind turbine energy, school officials indicated.

A prime concern is the excess energy the turbine tower is expected to produce - twice the district's own needs. The school plans to sell the excess to Alliant Energy for 1.7 cents per killowat hour, and also to receive a stipend from the federal government for the clean energy produced, Meier said.

"There is always a chance that the Iowa Utility Board could change its current policies on selling wind energy and have a negative effect on us. Right now things look good. Sometimes there are a few things you have to take a risk on if you plan to move ahead."

The district has already received approval from the Department of Natural Resources to be eligible for the Iowa Energy Bank program. This would provide no-interest loans for $250,000 of the project, and low-interest loans for the balance up to $781,000.

Sioux Central stands to be one of the first wind-powered schools in the state. Spirit Lake pioneered the process with its first turbine tower a few years ago, and only two other districts are working on possible projects at this time, Meier believed. "I suspect in years to come, this will be quite common, but for now, it's still pretty new ground."

School officials believe the wind project can cover all of the schools electrical needs, which covers most of the heating cost. Last year the district saw $86,000 in electric bills and $34,000 in natural gas.

The wind tower would be located on existing school campus land, behind the K-12 building located atop the valley wall south of Sioux Rapids. The height of the tower has not yet been determined.

The community has been nearly as split as the board, Meier admitted. "Why some people are against it, I don't really know. I think they are worried about committing the money and then running into some catastrophe down the road that we don't know about yet, that our general fund will somehow take a hit. But... I don't see where anything could happen that would really surprise us," Meier said.

Few people seem to doubt that the project would work in providing the energy, she said, guessing that of the comments she has heard, considerably more people are in favor than against.

- With reports by Ginny Smith and Dana Larsen.

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