Energizing a School

Hometown Heroes, People
on August 11, 2008
Adam Gerik Keith Bolin, a third-generation hog farmer in Manlius, Ill., spearheaded efforts to build a wind turbine to power the town's high school.

Rising 213 feet into the air, the wind turbine towers over the football field at Bureau Valley High School near Manlius, Ill. (pop 355). Adorned with the school’s lightning and storm cloud logo, the fiberglass and steel structure supports three 72-foot blades. Whether in gentle breezes or hat-wrenching gusts, the 3,000-pound blades silently turn, supplying renewable energy for the school of 400 students.

“When we sit in the bleachers and see the Bureau Valley logo up there, it says, ‘Look what this little community has done,’” says resident Barb Bolin, 46. “This is something we’re really proud of.”

The local landmark is the first wind turbine to power an Illinois school, and owes its existence to Barb’s husband, Keith Bolin, a third-generation hog farmer.

The idea began in 2000, when Bolin was attending a wind-energy workshop in Chicago as a representative of the American Corn Growers Association, learning how wind turbines could provide supplemental income for farmers.

“I thought, ‘If farmers can do this, why can’t other institutions?’” says Bolin, 47, a father of four who’s served on the Bureau Valley school board since 1993. “Schools often cut expenses by cutting employees. Saving electricity was one way not to negatively impact the educational system.”

At the time, the idea of a wind turbine in Illinois was so new that local power company officials weren’t even sure they could connect to one. But Bolin pressed on, researching turbine-powered schools in Minnesota and Iowa, all the while caring for his 2,000 hogs and growing 600 acres of grain.

In 2002, Bolin applied for and received a $20,000 Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation grant to study the town’s wind patterns, which proved favorable. After more than a year of research, Bolin brought the school board, turbine architect, utility company, state representatives, media and the public together to discuss powering the school with a wind turbine. “I wanted everyone in the same room at the same time,” Bolin says. “People embraced the idea.”

One such resident was retired banker Bob Doty, 80. “The community was excited, and they’re still excited. We’re saving a lot of money,” says Doty, referring to the roughly $100,000 annual savings for the school district.

The school funded the $1.1 million turbine, which has a 20-year lifespan, through Illinois state energy and commerce grants, a 10-year bank loan, and an education fund.

“It was a natural fit for what we want to do with the community,” says Don King, who owns a grain elevator in Manlius. “We have a local government organization that tries to take care of itself. We were lucky Keith was studying alternative energy.”

Construction began on the wind turbine in October 2004. Residents from five towns that the school serves—Buda, Manlius, Sheffield, Walnut and Wyanet—turned out to watch as trailers hauled cranes and turbine parts next to the football field. Three months later, the 660 kilowatt-turbine began powering the high school. Any excess electricity that the turbine produces is purchased by AmerenIP, the local power company.

“Last year, our gross savings was $100,000,” says Terry Gutshall, Bureau Valley superintendent. “As energy costs rise, so will our savings. If we have the opportunity to power another building, we will.”

A dozen Illinois schools and universities since have initiated their own wind-power feasibility studies. In spring 2008, Erie School District connected one large wind turbine to its four schools. “Bureau Valley helped us understand the process,” says Superintendent Mike Ryan. “We’ll save $4 million to $4.5 million over the turbine’s life. Without raising taxes. That’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

Bolin also sees the benefits of wind turbines beyond financial savings. “Energy drives so many decisions globally,” he says. “We don’t want to leave a negative footprint on the environment for our children.”