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Energy project lets Sitka students test wind power

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Posted: Saturday, September 18, 2010 4:59 pm | Updated: 1:06 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

SITKA, Alaska - An alternative energy project taking shape on Japonski Island will allow the city's electric department to test wind as a viable power source in Sitka.

In the process, Mt. Edgecumbe High School students will get hands-on lessons in math and science, and perhaps pick up ideas for bringing clean energy to their hometowns across the state. The U.S. Coast Guard could see benefits as well, namely a reduction in its power bill as the U.S. Coast Guard attempts to meet a mandate for federal agencies to reduce their use of fossil fuels.

"It's really a collaborative project," said Chris Brewton, Sitka's utility director. "It's an innovative way to approach it."

The driving force behind the project, which will bring a 66-foot wind turbine to Japonski Island, is Matt Hunter, who teaches math and physics at Mt. Edgecumbe High School.

Last winter, Hunter was brainstorming about projects for his students, when he came across a newspaper advertisement announcing grant funds for a program called "Alaska Wind for Schools."

Funded with federal stimulus money, the project seeks to "grow" a new generation of wind energy workers by giving them hands-on experience with a source of alternative energy.

Hunter thought it would be a perfect fit for his students, with an opportunity to crunch data and perhaps learn about a clean energy source.

"So many of the small villages around the state have diesel power and they're in windy places on the coast," Hunter said.

The wind turbine and tower should be installed soon, and Hunter hopes the project will be up and running by Halloween, or at least by the start of the second semester at Edgecumbe.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Maple has agreed to help pour the foundation for the 60-foot tower, and work should begin soon, at a spot on the channel adjacent to the Coast Guard's "shoreside detachment" building.

The turbine will be equipped with instruments that record various data for the Edgecumbe students, like wind speed and power output.The information will be posted to the web, and compared with similar projects in other parts of the state.

Power produced by the turbine, which has the potential of generating 2.4 kilowatts at maximum speed, will be used within the Coast Guard building.

The turbine is not expected to generate enough juice to take its building off the city power grid, but the Coast Guard expects to see its electric bill drop.

Federal agencies are under a mandate to use more alternative energy sources, which is another reason the project fits for the Coast Guard. It purchased three wind turbines for its station in Juneau, but an engineer eventually determined that the site could only handle one.

The Coast Guard then contacted the Wind for Schools program, and offered one of the extra turbines for Hunter's project.

"The goal in buying them was to get us familiar with wind energy," said Sudie Hargis, an energy program specialist in the Coast Guard's civil engineering unit in Juneau. "Rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on some big project, we're cutting our teeth on a smaller one."

Hargis said the Coast Guard was in the process of assessing various renewable energy sources, and wind power could be used at the some of the USCG's remote sites around the state.

She said 60-70 wind energy projects are currently in use, or in development, around Alaska.

The turbines cost about $7,000 each, and while the Coast Guard will retain ownership of the one on Japonski Island, Hunter and his students will be able to use free of charge.

Hargis said the Coast Guard's other extra turbine was sent to Kodiak for use at the base there. And the Coast Guard is looking for a school in Kodiak to partner with on the project.

Mt. Edgecumbe kicked in about $4,000 to get the project off the ground, and the city's electric department has thrown in $5,000.

Brewton said he had funds available for use on an alternative energy project, and was interested to learn if wind power can work in Sitka.

He said there may be small turbines in use in the area, perhaps on one of the inhabited islands in Sitka Sound, but that he is aware of none. He said the Japonski Island turbine will be equipped with a utility meter that will capture data that will be analyzed by his department.

Brewton said there's no shortage of chatter about alternative energy projects, but hard data illustrating the viability of projects are not always available.

"We're really interested in getting some good technical data," Brewton said. "Until you actually install it, and meter it, you have no idea if it will work."

For Hunter, the project is a perfect example of a hands-on learning environment. Students will engage data from the wind turbine in a real-life scenario, rather than the vacuum of a classroom. It doesn't hurt that many Edgecumbe students come from small villages where diesel is the main power source.

Even if wind power can't fully supplant diesel, say proponents, it could reduce electric costs and pollution.

Hunter said he hoped one of his students might go back to his or her home village and ask "Why aren't we doing this?"

"There's a lot of wind up north, especially in the Aleutians and along the coast," Hunter said. "If they can get a wind turbine it's a very effective way to run a city."

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