The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Features December 8, 2006

Students on Campus Work for a Greener Future

In a nature reserve just off Route 58 stands what might be the future of green energy at Oberlin.

“It’s just a tall, single pole, 161 feet high, held up by guy wires,” as described by Physics Professor John Scofield.

Despite being “just a pole,” this wind measuring tower will help the Oberlin Wind Power Initiative, headed by Scofield, recent graduate Michael Roth OC ’06 and several students to discover if wind power lies in Oberlin’s future.

The movement began in fall 2003, when Scofield taught a class on Energy Technology. Later that semester, he enlisted 12 promising students to research the successful commercial wind turbine installation in nearby Bowling Green, OH.

“We studied what they had done and thought about what it would take to duplicate that here in Oberlin,” Scofield said.

Although students lost interest and momentum in the spring, Roth came back a year later after completing an internship at Carnegie Mellon in sustainable energy.  Interested in resurrecting the project, he along with Scofield then “fish[ed] around for funds” for a monitoring tower.  With a few grants, they were able to purchase some equipment but did not “make much headway.”

The team wrote a grant proposal in spring 2005 to the city of Oberlin in an attempt to garner some of their Sustainable Reserve Fund to purchase wind measurement equipment. Scofield presented the team’s work to City Council, who approved the idea, giving them $13,000. Oberlin Municipal Light and Power helped the team place the orders for the equipment, which exhausted most of their budget. The equipment “trickled in” over that summer, including the main wind-measuring tower that would help the team gather their data.

But when the time came to erect the equipment, Roth and Scofield ran into many obstacles.

“Every step of the way was more complicated than we thought [it would be],” said Scofield. “We finally erected the tower early this past June, with the help of a crew of workers from OMLPS, who really did the bulk of the work to get it up.”

The tower is located in New Russia Township, where the Trustees gave permission for its construction.  They also allotted $2,500 in funds for the project.

“They’ve been very supportive,” said Scofield. “And the College also began to contribute, by helping us get the construction permits in. Just the paperwork was a lot more difficult than we had imagined. [Facilities Planners] Leo Evans and Eric McMillian helped provide College resources and put in time, effort and even money to the permit process, probably a few thousand dollars.”

The tower is powered entirely by a car battery recharged daily by solar cells, and feeds data back to the group—every two minutes—through a wireless Internet connection. The tower is equipped with three sets of wind monitoring sensors at 50, 40 and 30 meters above ground.  The devices measure wind speed and direction, as well as temperature, pressure and humidity. This information goes directly to the team’s website,, which includes data compiled over five months. 

“We want our website to be a resource for other entities that want to do feasibility studies,” said Roth, who is now working to analyze how much total energy output could be generated from a hypothetical wind turbine.

“We went through a lot of hardships, and it would be nice, if someone else is going through this process, to know these things,” he said.

Scofield made sure to emphasize, “the data we have now is for the worst ‘wind months’ of the year. Ohio has good ‘winter wind,’ and we’re just now entering into that [time].”  According to him, the compiled information is encouraging.  He predicted that in another four months, there would be some more definite evidence supporting positive effects of having wind turbines. 

“If the wind resources are there, the city, College and township might be willing to go another step to invest in some wind turbines,” he said.

“The Bowling Green turbines are successful enough to break even and maybe to earn a small profit every year,” said Roth. “We’re comparing our data to theirs. Even if we fell a little short than breaking even [in Oberlin] I think it would be possible…If we came close to breaking even, the College might say, ‘The publicity and greenness is important enough to us.’” 

Scofield plans to lead a campus-wide seminar in late March to publicize the project’s effort and present concrete data.

Several students have joined the initiative this fall.

Junior Ross Myers, inspired by Scofield’s class and the Peak Oil Awareness ExCo, has dedicated many hours in order to learn how to analyze the incoming data.

“Because there’s a 360 degree range for wind direction, I’m working on designing a chart that will tell you how much the wind will go in each direction, so that if we ever do get a turbine, we’ll know what direction to put it in,” said Myers. “Europe is so far ahead of us [energy-wise] so anywhere the U.S. can catch up is great. Wind power is appealing, because it’s basically free.”

“If we can’t make the case that [a wind turbine is] economically viable now, I won’t be that disappointed, because I know it will be someday,” said Scofield. “What you’re doing is comparing the cost of wind to the cost of other energy sources, and the cost of natural gas and coal is always going up.”

Both Carleton and Macalester Colleges have installed wind turbines to help power their campuses. St. Olaf College plans to be the first in the world to be 100 percent powered by wind.

“60 percent of our energy comes from green sources,” said Roth. “On the other hand, 40 percent still comes from coal, and we burn coal to heat the buildings, which emits a lot of greenhouse gases and particulates that aren’t good for students [to inhale].”

 “Last year I sent out a small survey to gauge how people felt about wind power, and close to 90 percent felt that they would [be willing to] pay a little extra [tuition] to support our project,” said Roth.

 Myers feels that the College could be doing more to promote sustainability on campus: “A lot of the green energy that we’re paying for is produced somewhere else in the country, so we’re not helping the area directly. Bringing a [wind] tower in would make a real difference here in Oberlin.”

Myers cited the Lightbulb Brigade as a group that truly helps the Oberlin environment.

“It all comes down to everyone reducing just a little bit here and there, because it’s the little things that add up,” he said.

For now, the team is watching and waiting.

Scofield analyzes the data that comes in using a program called Lab View, but he will soon pass this responsibility to his students as they become more familiar with the program.  With a few more months of data, the team will find if the answer to green energy truly is blowing in the wind.


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