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Wind Power Comes to Illinois Districts with Landmark Legislation

Three school districts in Illinois have bonded together to be in the business of wind power.

In a first-of-its-kind move, three school districts in Illinois have bonded together to be in the business of wind power. Their joint project not only could benefit the environment but could save millions of dollars.

The three districts—Community Unit District 300, Keeneyville Elementary School District 20, and Prospect Heights School District 23, all in the northeast corner of the state and 25 to 30 miles from Chicago—have formed a consortium to create a wind turbine farm, with 13 1.5- megawatt turbines in Stark County, which is in the center of the state and 140 miles southwest of Chicago.

The project was made possible with landmark legislation, according to Gary Ofisher, director of operations at the Keeneyville district. State Rep. Fred Crespo, a Democrat, sponsored legislation this past spring that allows school districts to form consortiums that can issue bonds and opens the way for schools to fund renewable energy projects. The House and Senate unanimously passed it, and Gov. Pat Quinn signed it in June.

"We'll be the first districts that collaboratively create a wind turbine farm. If this works, districts throughout the United States can do this," Ofisher says. "We would be the poster child for renewable energy grants."

But David Ulm, supervisor of facilities and energy management for Community Unit District 300, makes clear that the districts won't be profiting from this $50 million project. "We never meant to make money on this," he stresses. "The district will always be in the hole for electricity costs. This just offsets our existing costs."

Greg Guarrine, superintendent of the Prospect Heights district, says that former business manager Rick Ewanio, who just retired in June, worked closely with Ofisher a few years ago to develop ways to ameliorate the rising costs of utilities. "Being a small district, we thought if we combined our resources and if a few banded together, we could become mighty," Guarrine says. Ewanio will still volunteer as the wind consultant for the district.

The idea for the wind farm came about in 2007. Ulm, who was hired in 2004 after his district started a higher efficiency lighting project and sought ways to upgrade operating systems, started looking into wind turbines as an energy source. Ofisher, in the meantime, was working to have a wind turbine erected on his district property, but the village board and the local utility company, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), denied him. He reached out to Ulm, knowing he too was looking into turbines, for help.

Ofisher says he went to Rodney Craig, mayor of Hanover Park, where the district's offices are located, who persuaded Crespo to sponsor a bill in 2009 that would allow net aggregate metering, meaning the school district would have its own wind turbine and build credit to allow for its own electricity needs. But ComEd fought it because if every district did the same, the company would lose more than $1 billion in administrative costs, Ofisher and Ulm say. So eventually, the three districts agreed to build and operate their own wind farm, become a power producer, sell the electricity on the open market, and use the funds to offset their utility costs. The new legislation made this possible.

The districts will pay for the project, which is set to be installed in early 2011 and be operational by September 2011, via three types of funds: (1) grants from the Department of Energy, under the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, for unique renewable energy projects; (2) federal New Market Tax Credits, which could be used for renewable energy if the project helps the economy (Stark County is a depressed economy); and (3) revenue bonds issued by the Joint Wind Agency, the organization— comprised of representatives from all three districts—that will build and operate the wind farm.

The districts should save a combined $3 million to $4 million annually in energy costs over 30 years, Ofisher explains. Wind turbines have a 30-year life expectancy.

If all goes as planned, the turbine company will be selected and the funds will be in place by mid-November, Ofisher says. Ofisher says officials from the three districts now are hoping for a lot of wind. "Based on test results, the wind is 12 to 16 miles per hour consistently," Ofisher says, "and at 300 feet that would produce a significant amount of electricity."