October online edition

Wind power to shed light on CMU

Russell Snyder
Pittsburgh Standard

Carnegie Mellon is once again making historic firsts.  After being the first university to install a wireless campus network, President Cohen announced at last year’s commencement that Carnegie Mellon would be the first university to purchase a portion of its energy supply from a nearby wind farm. 

The initiative is an attempt to use a cleaner source of energy that will help to improve environmental quality.   Through an agreement with the Community Energy Inc., five percent of CMU’s electricity will be provided by the Exelon-Wind Energy Wind Farm at Mill Run in Fayette County, enough to power 650 homes for a year.  Carnegie Mellon is also working with the Environmental Defense Fund, a liberal environmental group that has its activist origins in the DDT scare of the sixties and has most recently lobbied for the practically defunct Kyoto Protocol designed to combat global warming. 

"Our university is committed to using our research and education programs -- as well as our own campus practices -- to improve environmental quality, to provide leadership in environmentally sustainable practices and to support the development of wind power generation in western Pennsylvania,” said Jared Cohen, president of Carnegie Mellon.

The plan does not come without its cost.  The university says that the wind-generated energy will cost 2 cents/kilowatt hour more than traditional coal sources, a 48% price increase.  Wind power is more costly because of a low capacity factor that results from its intermittent power source, forcing utilities to firm up the intermittent periods at a premium and increasing financial costs related to an unreliable energy source.  Wind power costs do have the benefit of being more stable, however, because they are not subject to fuel price costs and can be bought with long-term contracts. 

The university’s Environmental Practices Committee, which recommended the wind power agreement, plans to actively promote ways to reduce energy usage among the campus community in order to offset the price increase.   It plans to build on the current recycling plan, in existence for the past ten years.

Campus reaction is understandably mixed on whether purchasing wind power at a premium is a good use of tuition funds and on whether CMU is being sincere in its efforts. 

“CMU's commitment to wind power is more to draw headlines, than to actually contribute to the environment”, says Kevin Cherry, a Materials Science graduate student.  “The additional money will come from the pockets of students and not from the university officials.  Once again, the CMU administration has shown how noble it can be with other people's money.”

Kevin Frederick, an ECE graduate student, feels that the extra cost of electricity is not a big deal. “It is critical to encourage attempts to expand our energy resources and this seems like an excellent prospect.  It is also great since the university appears to gain access to the science or environmental policies that went into this new local source of power.”

                “Even if it costs more, after all, you can’t get everything for free,” says Andrea Okerholm, a graduate student in ECE.  “I’d rather pay more to have clean air than have more money in my pocket and smog.”

                The wind farm in Mill Run is currently under construction about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, anticipated completion occurring later this year.  The project is expected to cost $18 million.  Ten to twelve acres will be covered with towers 231 feet high and having a rotor diameter of 231 feet.  Community Energy Inc, a ‘green’ marketing company founded in 1999 by environmental groups, is working with Exelon Power to provide the multi-state region with 70 megawatts of wind power, an amount that will triple the amount of wind power in the eastern United States.  Residential customers will be able to choose to purchase a number of blocks of wind energy as part of their ordinary electric supply. 

                Although traditional coal sources certainly emit pollution, wind power also has its environmental critics.  Wind farms are often noisy, land-intensive, unsightly and hazardous to birds, including endangered species, a fact that has resulted in the National Audubon Society calling for a moratorium on new wind development in bird-sensitive areas.  Community Electric has stated that the studies of the region have indicated that the impact on the bird population is minimal.  The land required is quite large, 85 times more than a traditional gas-fired plant. 

                Kevin Cherry highlights these issues, “Yes, there are zero emissions, but there still is environment damage wrought by foresting the land with giant windmills; first the footprint of such an installation is quite large because it is not as efficient as a coal-fired plant and secondly these windmills are giant bird-killing machines.  If CMU really wants to help reduce emissions, wouldn’t it make more sense to try to reduce the amount of electricity the campus is consuming?”

                The university feels that this agreement is just part of a larger plan to be at the forefront of research into tomorrow’s energy sources, becoming the model of environmental stewardship.

                One thing is for certain. It isn’t the worst way for CMU to spend its money, as senior Computer Science major, Seth Porter, indicates, “Frankly, I’d sooner spend my money for tuition cutting down on coal usage than paying yet another Student Activities fee to get a weak band for Carnival.”


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