UI turbine still faces uncertainty

URBANA – Unanticipated costs and unanswered questions have created the potential for a bigger price tag on the University of Illinois' wind turbine project, and officials will wait at least until March to get approval from the school's board of trustees.

Project organizers originally hoped to get the OK from the board this month, but now they may need to find new sources of funding for the project that has stirred nearby residents, worried about the 400-foot turbine's intrusiveness on their homes.

It is not the first time the turbine project has faced uncertainty. The idea – which, at the time, was to build three turbines at a cost of about $5 million – was originally conceived in 2003 by a student organization looking to promote sustainability on campus.

In 2008, as economic conditions took a toll on the campus budget, then-Chancellor Richard Herman canceled the project and the wind turbine proposal fell into limbo. Herman later resigned and Robert Easter, named the interim head of the campus, brought with him to the chancellor's office a re-committment to wind energy.

When contractors returned bids on the project this fall, it became clear the costs were much higher than anticipated. The proposal was downsized from three turbines to one, and now officials are unsure whether they can even fit that within their budget.

But UI sustainability coordinator Morgan Johnston said even with new questions, she believes the project can still survive.

"I expected it to be complicated," she said.

As the UI negotiates with a potential contractor, Johnston said peripheral costs could put the project above its $4.5 million budget. For example, how to build access roads to get large pieces of the turbine to the proposed site south of Urbana and who will pay for the installation of the electrical hookup to UI facilities are questions that need to be answered before a contract is signed, she said.

Anything above $4.5 million will need additional funding, she said, and it is not yet clear where that money might come from.

"That's the question," Johnston said. "Because we're in the negotiations, we're going to be clarifying what the actual project budget need is."

The proposal was to be funded with $1 million from the UI facilities budget, $500,000 from the chancellor's office and $500,000 from the president's office. A student committee has agreed to contribute $500,000 from a student sustainability fee, and the balance was to be paid by a $2 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.

That grant may be in jeopardy now – it expires May 31, a deadline the UI could have trouble meeting with the extra delays. The university had already requested a number of extensions, and Johnston said they will ask for another.

"There's a risk, but I don't believe it's a huge risk," Johnston said.

But the question for residents and city officials has always centered on the exact location of the turbine. During a December public meeting, nearby residents asked the university to move it farther from their homes.

"One of the questions that was brought up in the meeting in December is could the location be shifted, and that is something we are looking into," Johnston said.

The city of Urbana has a safeguard against wind turbines being too close to residential properties, but it is an ordinance with which UI officials and their attorneys contend the university – as a state agency – is not required to comply. City officials have said they believe the university must comply, but the scenario has never been tested in the courts.

"Our only concern is how it conforms to the city's zoning ordinance," said alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-7.

Even moving it a few hundred feet into compliance with the zoning ordinance might not be enough for Roy Douglas, whose home and farm is among the nearest to the proposed site. His crop duster said he would not be willing to fly within a half-mile of the wind turbine.

That could mean big production losses for Douglas – he estimates as much as $150 per acre on his 1,800 acre farm.

"It's still going to interfere with my farming operations," Douglas said.

Marlin said that as the project's price tag grows, she is beginning to question its benefits.

"The more I've learned about this project, the more it doesn't make sense from a financial or environmental point of view," she said.

Johnston said it was never about the money: "Some sustainability projects are not warranted purely on financial reasons."

UI officials expect that a 1.5-megawatt turbine would offset about 1 percent of the campus' electrical needs. It is among the first steps to accomplish a goal of eliminating 5 percent of the demand on the Abbott power plant by 2015 and a long-term goal of becoming a carbon neutral campus by 2039.

"The goal behind the wind turbine project is not a budgetary goal," Johnston said.

Marlin said she does not buy that argument.

"I think maybe it's time to take a step back and look at, 'OK, for this amount of money, what can we do to actually make an impact on campus?'" Marlin said.

"It has to be about money," she said. "You can't build a $5.5 million symbol anymore."

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