The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

January 17, 2013

Conneaut school’s idle wind turbine could end ‘green’ initiative

CONNEAUT — Increasing dissatisfaction with a balky wind turbine may prompt the Conneaut Board of Education to scrap its three-year-old energy project.

At issue is a 600-kilowatt turbine erected next to Conneaut Middle School in 2010. The big machine was expected to provide 40 percent of the middle school’s electricity, but hasn’t operated consistently since its construction, officials have said.

Hydraulic problems have been blamed, and NexGen is reportedly involved in a lawsuit with a parts supplier, according to reports. The on-going court battle is why the turbine has not been fixed, school administrators have been told.

Enough is enough, board member Sonny Heinonen said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Nothing is being done,” he said. “How long are we going to put up with it?”

Aside from a good-faith payment to NexGen when the deal was struck in 2009, the district has no money invested in the turbine. However, the all-electric middle school was bypassed when energy-efficient, natural gas boilers were installed in other school buildings because its power needs were supposedly met by the turbine, said Superintendent Kent Houston.

A few years ago, the Conneaut district embarked on a project to make energy improvements in its buildings to trim utility costs. Savings are guaranteed by the mechanical engineering company that did the retrofit.

With no end in sight to the turbine turmoil, board members may now be ready to explore a similar energy makeover for the middle school. Houston said he will investigate the cost of boilers at CMS.

“It’s in litigation,” said Christopher Newcomb, board president. “Nothing can be done to speed up litigation. Can we get something in there to save us money?”

The district is not legally bound to NexGen regarding the turbine except to buy the power it produces for a 10-year period. Cost of building the generator and then hooking it up to the middle school was borne by NexGen. The district did make a $9,500 payment to NexGen which will be refunded halfway through the contract period.

“We have no obligation to those people,” board member Mike Kennedy said. “We don’t owe those people anything.”

Messages left for a NexGen spokesman at the company’s Boulder, Colo., headquarters were not immediately returned Wednesday afternoon.

Shortly after the school turbine was erected, NexGen build a smaller, 400-kilowatt generator at the city of Conneaut’s sewage treatment plant. Aside from a few months in 2011 when a lightning strike knocked it out of service, the city’s turbine has worked well, officials have said.

At the time, the Conneaut turbines were touted as one of Ohio’s top energy projects of the year.

In other news, preliminary enrollment numbers show a slight gain in students at CMS and Lakeshore Primary School and a drop at Conneaut High and Gateway Elementary schools, Houston said. Some 574 students are enrolled at the high school, compared to 612 last year, he said. Gateway has 381 students, down 28 from 2011-2012.

Enrollment at CMS and Lakeshore has grow by just a handful of students, Houston said. School administrators will be double-checking the numbers because the district receives some $5,700 from the state for each student enrolled.

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