KAREN AUGE, The Denver Post, February 15, 2008
Ethan Wilkenson, 8, works on his wind turbine project in Lori Oestman’s second- grade class in Wray. To save money, the school district built a 250-foot turbine that will pay its power bill, with money left over.
When finances hit the skids, when all the fat had been sliced off the budget and the next thing to go would have been the bone itself, inspired thinkers in the Wray School District decided to follow that age-old advice: Play to your strengths.
In the case of Wray, that would be wind.
Wind that bubbles up around the foothills west of Denver, churns through the city, then blasts east over 160 miles of plains to this town of 2,500. When it hits Wray, the wind roils through a canyon carved by the Republican River’s north fork before it pops up on the southeast end of town with enough force to scrape the freckles off a first-grader.
There, on a gentle bluff, the Wray School District built its wind turbine.
What started as an agriculture teacher’s idea to save on electric bills is now a gleaming, 250-foot- tall monument to the possibilities that unfold when a scrappy little town’s generous spirit marries a global economy interested in greening.
The result isn’t just going to save a few dollars. Over the 20-some years of its life, the turbine is expected to cover the district’s power bill, which can top $80,000 a year, with enough left over for kids’ education — all the while supplying 20% of the town’s power.
“We’re pretty proud of it,” said Ron Howard, Wray schools superintendent.
Along the way, just about everybody in town has contributed, even as equipment from Belgium, energy credits from Vermont and two guys from Holland helping assemble the thing have given the project a cosmopolitan flair.
Road to Success
To cover the turbine’s $1.8 million cost, school officials turned to the usual sources: the Rotary and Lions clubs, the chamber of commerce. The county scraped up a road — literally — to the site, and the city isn’t charging for use of the land. <
“As long as there’s a wind turbine on it, we don’t have to pay a dime,” Howard said.
But they also got creative. They got money from federal grants and local endowments.
In a demonstration of wind power, Wray second-grader Brinn Clark, right, runs an electric fan to show kindergartners, from left, Taryn Stone, Jaelyn Adler and Jenna Kock how the breeze will spin their pinwheels. In an effort to save money, the town’s cash-strapped school district built a wind turbine that is expected to cover its power bill, which can top $80,000 a year, with enough left over for kids’ education. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post )
And they sold electricity even before they produced it.
NativeEnergy paid roughly $260,000 for energy that will be produced over the turbine’s lifetime.
“We purchase expected renewable energy credits, and we pay for those in a lump sum upfront,” said Billy Connelly, the company’s marketing director.
NativeEnergy bought the anticipated units of energy and then will resell those units as renewable-energy credits.
Credits Critical to Project
Renewable-energy credits go by many names, but they are units of energy created by renewable sources — like wind — that are bought and sold. Buyers may be green-thinking companies or individuals who want to shrink their carbon footprint, but can’t rely solely on wind or solar power.
Instead, they buy renewable-energy credits, which help subsidize projects like Wray’s.
All that is beyond the jury-rigged contraption that agriculture teacher Jay Clapper originally envisioned.
Like a lot of plains towns, Wray’s population is aging. And more seniors means fewer kids. The district’s current 620 students is 100 fewer than a decade ago, Howard said.
In a state where school funding is tied to student population, and in a town where the economy was being slapped around, that was a problem. After cutting $750,000 out of a $5 million budget, district officials asked staff to suggest their own money-saving ideas.
That’s when Clapper offered his wind-generator plan.
Clapper’s original idea was to stick a turbine on a bluff behind the school and hook it to a power line to save a bit on electric bills.
“This is a progressive town” is a phrase used over and over here, by people who point not just to the turbine but also to the new aquatic center, a state-of-the-art physical rehabilitation center, a golf course and the pretty, new hospital.
Wray has managed to avoid the sad pallor of resignation that has settled on so many plains towns, where everybody seems to have stopped trying.
But even here, a school-owned wind turbine raised eyebrows.
“There were a lot of doubts,” Clapper said.
People were skeptical about wind energy, about the cost, about whether a school could pull it off, legally as well as logistically, Clapper said.
Howard, the man whose task it was to answer those questions, buzzes around so fast you can almost miss the hitch in his walk — a little souvenir from his bull-riding days. He became an agriculture teacher, he said, because his mom nagged him about having a backup plan for when the rodeoing ran out.
Even so, he expected his academic life to be more about curriculum and kids than finding benefactors and staying up nights Googling “renewable energy credits” — which is how he found NativeEnergy.
It helps, he said, to know that in the end it all comes back to education.
Gust of Classroom Ideas
In Wray schools Tuesday, first-graders made mini-turbines with high-schoolers’ help. Clapper entertained at a school assembly using an ice-chest full of props to explain wind energy.
Bobbi Andrews’ kindergarten class got a lesson in wind and turbine construction from Kay Andrews’ (Bobbi’s mom) second-graders. The older kids filed into the kindergarten class armed with drawings and definitions, and took turns sharing their wind wisdom.
After the basics were covered, everybody got to build a take-home turbine out of paper plates, marshmallows and a carrot-stick base.
And while they didn’t grasp the significance of the turbine, they were certainly impressed by the hoopla it was creating.
“The governor is coming,” said second-grader Brittney Chavez.
Apparently, Brittney failed to convey the true magnitude of the occasion because a classmate corrected her:
“The governor of the whole United States is going to be here!” the girl said.
Whether the chief executive of one state or 50, nobody can remember the last time a governor showed up, and the town plans to make a big deal of it.
Ritter will talk to all 620 students this morning, then the lot of them will get on school buses and drive out to the turbine for the ribbon-cutting and flipping of the switch.
“This project embodies everything that Gov. Ritter is trying to accomplish,” said his spokesman, Evan Dreyer.
“It incorporates education with the new-energy economy.”
But, Howard said, pointing at the kindergarten class he just visited, “It’s not about anybody else — it’s about those dang kids in there.”