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Lake Land College saves with green energy

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MATTOON -- It's not a job for everyone, but Charleston natives Benjamin Brazzell and Ian Ippolito are turbine monkeys.

The nacelle of a Bora wind turbine -- which functions like a generator for the turbine -- resembles a piece of NASA equipment, but currently it sits in Lake Land's West Building, which has lent itself as a learning tool for the college's students and about 250 area high school students who have taken field trips to the lab to learn about the mechanics of the machine and the work that goes in to making and maintaining the equipment inside. Ippolito said being part of the turbine experiment has been "quite cool," and he's been impressed with what it can do when it's functioning.

"It's a lot of drilling and tapping for modifications and upgrades," he said."Hopefully we're fashioning it to where we don't have to make these on the fly changes when it's up in the air. We're getting it done here."

The Lake Land College student and graduate, respectively, have been part of the team of instructors, engineers and students who have reworked and improved one of the school's wind turbines, and they say the hands-on lab where they've been repairing the mechanics and electrical work on the prototype turbine has put them above other new techs heading out toward the job market. Though it's not all about monkeying their ways up the 110 foot tower, they know they're prepped for a full time gig working on wind turbines as a professional.

The turbines have been just a portion of Lake Land's green energy efforts that accompanied a 2007 campus wide initiative to go green while remodeling the school's infrastructure. According to Vice President for Business Services Ray Rieck, the campus buildings were 35 years old at the time and had little up keep over the years. The renovation required asbestos removal and upgrades to classroom layout to align with ADA regulations.

"A lot the replacement parts had to produced because you simply couldn't buy them any longer," Rieck said about the former systems.

Administrators then decided they'd attempt to capture additional cost savings with energy efficient upgrades as well. Central Tech Solutions of St. Louis, Mo., was hired on to help Lake Land through the process, and the school secured it's first grant for a wind turbine that year.

"Mattoon is in a location where our wind speeds are marginal at best," said Joe Tillman, renewable energy instructor and coordinator. "It's not the best place for wind.  For our wind speeds at this time we had to do something experimental. As an experimental project goes it takes a while to get all the bugs worked out, and this project (on the Bora turbine) has been no exception, but at low wind speeds they do ridiculously well. They start producing electricity at wind speeds well below 7 mph.

"This has been about a two year experience," Tillman said. "It has taken longer than anyone would have liked for it to have taken."

The team has addressed issues with computer programming, yaw brake deficiencies and delays with manufacturing and importing parts, he said. However, throughout the experience his students have gained valuable experience that will transition into their future careers.

"This is the best hands on training I can give any student, because I have turbines they can actually climb and work on," Tillman said. "We give them a chance to fix real life issues."

Though the wind turbines are the most visible structures that offer students hands on experience, the unsung hero with the school's bottom line has been the geothermal well loop. Rieck says the college's $300,000 in annual savings was made possible with the geothermal loop underground, which extracts Earth's thermal energy to be used throughout campus buildings.

The CTS group assigned an engineer to campus for the geothermal loop infrastructure.

"(The loop structure) allowed us to do one building at a time," Rieck said. "It was a plug and play system. We could add a building and a well field as we needed to. The challenge was to complete the buildings' construction within the 90 day summertime slot."

In terms of tuition, $300,000 savings is equivalent to $3 per credit hour since the school relates $1 tuition increase to $100,000 of revenue, Rieck added.

"Once each building's renovation was complete we started to see a savings of about 30 percent on the cost of energy," Rieck said. "We saw our return on investment so to speak in seven to eight years." Initial estimates had that mark at about 13 years, he added.

The investment was realized quicker than anticipated because of the efficiency of the geothermal loop, and during this same period the cost of electricity increased about 50 percent per kilowatt hour, Rieck added.

The $300,000 savings mark should stay consistent for the school as they are about 85-90 percent done with the building renovations. The final pieces to the puzzle will be the VoTech Building and the West Building and student center additions.

"If anything, it's increased the classroom environment," Rieck said. "We had little control over the air conditioning settings; sometimes classrooms in the summertime would reach 80-85 degrees. It was a terrible environment from a student standpoint. We're saving money, but we're improving our facilities for students too."

 Next in line for the school will be the installation of 300 kilowatt solar panels on the rooftops. 

"We're going to get some excitement on those too," Tillman said. "It's going to be interesting to see how those work."

For now, the nacelle Brazzell and Ippolito have been working will stay on the ground.

"The board of trustees was kind enough to allow the turbine to stay on the ground for the energy fair," Tillman said. The nacelle will be replaced in slightly warmer weather March 11-12 -- weather permitting, of course. Both turbines should be running by May.

"That's really what we are shooting for, and I think that's very doable," Tillman said.

Lake Land is the only school that allows students, with the proper certification, to climb to the to of the 110 foot tower to work on the machine while it's functioning.

It's not for everyone, but Tillman says after a student makes his or her first climb he or she can decide whether or not it's for them.

"You have to be a bit of a thrill seeker," he said. "It is a dirty job. You can't climb it without getting dirty. For those who don't mind that it's a pretty good occupation, and the industry now is mature enough. Right now it's still growing, albeit not as fast as it was four years ago. That's mostly due to tax cuts and such, but it is still growing." 

Ippolito and Brazzell say they're confident their climbing experiences and ground work will put them ahead of the other applicants in the field. 

"I'd like to see this turbine put back up before I take a full time job though," Ipollito said.

He's graduated, but was hired on part time to help with the mechanical side of the turbine. 

"That's pretty much our mantra with the team we have at Lake Land," Tillman added. "We want to see this through to the end."

Contact Zyskowski at kzyskowski@jg-tc.com or 217-238-6869.

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