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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Windmill Powered School

Air Date: Week of

Guest host John Rudolph talks with school principal and energy innovator Harold Overman about his school's use of turbine power in Spirit Lake, Iowa. The school is saving twenty thousand dollars in electric bills this year that it will put towards other school projects, and plans are being drawn to use wind power in two more of the district's schools.


RUDOLPH: Education requires a lot of energy. Not just the kind that comes from students and teachers, but also electric energy to light classrooms, run computers and laboratories, and operate athletic facilities and cafeterias. In the town of Spirit Lake Iowa, the electric bill for the local elementary school used to run more than $20,000 a year. But that was before the school built a windmill to generate power. Now, a turbine perched atop a 140-foot tower generates enough electricity to supply the school with power to spare. Harold Overman is the superintendent of schools in Spirit Lake. Mr. Overman, who came up with the idea to build a windmill?

OVERMAN: Well, a board member and I were attending a Little League football game when it was terrifically windy, and we made the comment, or somebody made the comment, wouldn't it be great if we could harness this wind for some use? And that sort of started the discussion and then we spent about a year developing an information base before we decided to move in that direction.

RUDOLPH: Tell me a little bit about how the school actually first made the commitment to energy efficiency.

OVERMAN: Okay. What really, I could go back to about 5 or 6 years ago. I was addressing a high school biology class on Earth Day, and talking about conservation and natural resources and so on. And the students really challenged me and they said you know, if we're so concerned about it, why are we doing some things in our school like continue to use Styrofoam cups in our lunchroom program? Why are we hauling so much material from the school to the landfill? Why are we not using more renewable sources of energy? And I went back and I thought about that and I thought you know, we say one thing and do another. And I talked to the school board about it and the staff, and we just made the commitment that that's got to be a priority. Because that, it's very important to the young people. They're concerned about the Earth they're going to inherit.

RUDOLPH: What's the relationship between this windmill generating electricity and the curriculum at the school? I mean, do you teach kids about energy efficiency?

OVERMAN: A lot of people, when they talk to us about our wind turbine here at school, of course are interested in the economic payback. But really that was the third reason, actually, that we went into it. First of all for education purposes, secondly for environmental factors, and thirdly for economics. But in education, we monitor the turbine in our math classes and our technology classes and they do comparability studies and correlation studies between the amount of wind and the amount produced.

RUDOLPH: Now, you sell the excess electricity to the local power company. What does the school department do with the revenue that you generate?

OVERMAN: For the first 4 and a half years here we will be paying back the loan. When we purchased the turbine we had no money up front. We had a grant, a Federal grant for half of it because it was the only one in the nation at that time for schools, and they wanted to see if it would really pay out. And the other half, we took out a loan. We've got 2 more payments to make and then we'll have it paid off. And then we will be taking that money and putting it into our technology program. And $24,000 will almost equip one lab per year.

RUDOLPH: Now I understand that you have plans to build an additional windmill?

OVERMAN: Yes, we've taken bids on our second turbine, a much larger one than this one.

RUDOLPH: And what school would that help?

OVERMAN: That would provide the electricity for our middle school and our high school, and we would sell the excess electricity.

RUDOLPH: Now, have these windmills inspired any kind of, say, change in the school mascot or something like that? I mean, do you have the Spirit Lake Turbines playing on the football field?

OVERMAN: (Laughs) No, but they did come out, we are the Spirit Lake Indians, and they did come out with a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, that says "Spirit Lake Indians: The First to Run With the Wind." (Laughs)

RUDOLPH: Harold Overman is the superintendent of schools in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Mr. Overman, thank you very much.

OVERMAN: Well, thank you.



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