St. Paul, Minn. — The 90-foot-tall tower topped with sleek, silver blades looks like the wind turbines that dot Minnesota's prairies. But this one stands on the edge of the Macalester college football field, surrounded by a densely populated urban neighborhood.
Macalester's Tom Welna read a long list of thank-you's at the switch-flipping ceremony, including one to the St. Paul Zoning Committee.
"The zoning committee went out on a limb and trusted that we were not erecting a noisy eyesore in a perfectly good neighborhood. And speaking of perfectly good neighborhoods, I also want to thank the many neighbors who called in, wrote in letters of support for this project," Welna said.
The college's graduating class of 2003 is raising money to pay for the tower's installation. "I think its a powerful symbol of where we need to go, and it's an icon for the school and the neighborhood, and it should generate more than just electricity," Dan Moring, a Macalester senior, said.
Other speakers agreed that the turbine was largely symbolic. It would take 300 such turbines to generate all the electricity the college needs. But speakers said the turbine will also be a useful study tool. It will generate data on how much electricity is produced at different windspeeds and it will provide a focus for discussion of wind-power issues.
The Macalester turbine is one of only a handful of urban wind turbines nationwide.
The turbine and tower plus the equipment to hook it into the grid cost $40,000. The cost was paid for by Minnesota's largest utility, Xcel Energy. Xcel's Laura McCarten says the company has been a nationwide leader in wind energy issues, and strong supporter of alternative energy.
"From windpower on both a large and small scale, to windpower, to photovoltaics to fuel cell technology, we work to foster the growth of alternative energy sources, and to prepare for a more environmentally friendly future," McCarten said.
But another speaker at the event questioned whether Minnesota really is headed toward the environmentally friendly future touted by Xcel.
Andrew Lambert is a 2001 graduate of the Unversity of Minneosota who now works with a group called the Green Institute to develop renewable energy. Lambert pointed to bills in the state House and Senate to allow Xcel to expand its nuclear waste storage. The expanded storage would allow the company to keep its two nuclear plants operating long into the future.
"This presents an enormous disincentive for renewable energy development by continuing to supply a large chunk of the market with nuclear power. We can do better. We're smarter than that. Aldo Leopold said, 'A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stablility and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends otherwise.' Procuring electricity from renewable resources like solar, fuel cells and wind turbines like this is clearly the right thing to do," Lamber said.
Macalester spokesman Welna said afterwards that Lambert had been asked to speak because the senior class had requested someone to speak on energy in a broader sense. He said the college, "suspected but didn't know specifically" that the topic of nuclear waste storage would be raised. Welna says the college has an open and flexible tradition, and respects academic freedom.
"I truly do not believe that this is a choice that if you want renewables, you have to shut the nuclear plants down," countered Xcel's Laura McCarten. "They co-exist, they should co-exist, they can co-exist, and with the plans that we have to add even more windpower, as we sit here today over 800 megawats by 2007, we'll continue to have one of the strongest programs in the nation."
Critics say Xcel has added windpower only because the state legislature required it to as part of a law allowing it to expand its nuclear storage in the early 1990s.
If the company is denied permission for more nuclear storage, it plans replace its nuclear plants with two conventional power plants, one fired by coal, and the other by natural gas.