CHAMPAIGN — Students at Jefferson Middle School could start learning about wind energy by using a turbine at their school in the next school year.
Plans to build a turbine on the school's north side are in progress as the Champaign school district has accepted bids to see how much it will cost.
The school board could consider accepting a bid to build the turbine next month.
The 1-kilowatt wind turbine would be sized for use in a residential neighborhood and used primarily as an educational tool, said Geoff Freymuth, who is a seventh-grade science teacher, the school's green team sponsor and the school's Science Olympiad coach.
It will especially help the school teach engineering lessons and practices as a part of the new science standards the state board of education is expected to vote on sometime this year.
To help pay for Jefferson's turbine, the school district received a $40,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation through its pilot program for schools and small wind turbines. The foundation's program is called Illinois Wind Schools.
However, Freymuth, who has been working with other teachers and officials to make the turbine happen, expects that the school will have to do more fundraising. To use the grant money, the turbine needs to be done by April 2014.
So, how does one go about figuring out how to put up a wind turbine at a school?
"It's quite a process," Freymuth said.
He got the idea when he was attending a workshop for the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation's Illinois Solar Schools Program. (Jefferson has solar panels that were installed last year; 90 percent of their cost was paid for by an Illinois Solar Schools grant.)
Freymuth first looked into whether a turbine would be allowed at Jefferson and found the city's zoning allowed it as a "use by right."
"We're well within the city's ordinances," he said.
The school did a site study, paid for with building funds, to see if the school had a good place to put a turbine.
Freymuth then researched the best kind of wind turbine based on size, sound and efficiency.
The one he ended up asking potential installers to bid on is sized for a residential neighborhood, Freymuth said, so it will generate about 1 percent of the school's energy.
"It would power a house, no problem," Freymuth said.
The turbine, which would be located in front of the softball field behind Jefferson, would be about the same height as the softball field lights, and shorter than the 100-foot lights of the nearby Tommy Stuart Field, which is behind Centennial.
It would be 500 feet from the nearest house, Freymuth said, and Jefferson is located in an area that includes several properties owned by the school and park district.
Freymuth and some of his green team students made pamphlets and went door-to-door before last school year ended, giving them to neighbors.
Freymuth said the neighbors they spoke to had either positive or neutral feedback.
Jefferson will also receive grant money from Illinois Wind for Schools, which will help pay for training teachers, materials for teaching kids about wind energy and more.
Freymuth said it's not just Jefferson students who would benefit from the turbine. He expects the green team to host elementary school field trips to see it, and it could also tie in with things like physics classes at Centennial High School next door.
The Prairieview-Ogden school district has a larger wind turbine than Jefferson plans to install near its Prairieview-Ogden South Elementary School in Ogden. It's a 50-kilowatt turbine.
Superintendent Vic White said he considers it a great learning tool for students.
"It's firsthand," he said. "You can't get any better than that."
The school's students also have models of wind turbines they use to learn about wind energy.
Using a fan as a wind source, White said, students can see that air moving at a medium speed lights a light bulb dimly, and air moving quickly makes the bulb light brightly.
These demonstrations are mainly used in fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms, when students' textbooks start including renewable energy.
"I just feel that it's a great learning tool and at the same time it's saving our district money," White said.
Nick Poplawski, who is a program analyst for the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, said the foundation works with many nonprofit and public organizations in Illinois, and "educational institutions provide excellent opportunities for students to gain exposure to renewable energy and energy efficiency."
"Our goal with the Illinois Solar Schools and Illinois Wind Schools initiatives is to provide students and teachers with small-scale solar and wind installations that are financially accessible and primarily geared toward educational use," Poplawski said.
Having sources of renewable energy, like solar panels and wind turbines, at school enhances the learning experience for students, he said. It allows access to real-time data from the equipment and the ability to see it in person.
"Ultimately, we want these installations to be a starting point for discussing environmental science, math, physics, engineering, public policy, economics and other topics," Poplawski said. "These are issues that the next generation of leaders will need to address, and we feel that exposing students to them is incredibly valuable, especially through working technology."
The Champaign school district has used grant money from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation in the past, Poplawski said, and has integrated sustainability into both its facilities and its curriculum.
"This latest project fits right into our goals for the program, and most importantly, the wind conditions were shown to be favorable for a proper installation of a wind turbine," he said. "Adding wind technology to the district's existing solar and energy-efficiency equipment will provide yet another opportunity for students and the Champaign community to learn about sustainability."
Because the wind program is in the pilot stage, the foundation is working with schools that have already received grants through Illinois Solar Schools.
"We will use the lessons from the pilot program to open up the program to all schools," Poplawski said. "Having both wind and solar technology at a school has the added benefit of showcasing how the two types of technologies complement each other."