Group hopes to harness breeze of Windy City

Anthony Tao

Looking at the remnants of Northwestern’s old observatory — 11 concrete blocks are all that remain — most people would see only doodads and miscellany surrounded by a gravel parking lot.

But for a group of McCormick freshmen, the lot represents the ideal site for a proposed 120-foot, 10-kilowatt, $70,000 wind turbine that could supply enough electricity to power a small building.

“I think it’s important because it’s a clean source of renewable energy, especially in a location such as Chicago,” said Katy Rosner, one of the team members. “It will really provide a lot of energy.”

As part of an Engineering Design and Communication class project, Rosner, David Bild, Jigar Choksey and Chris Fruth were hired by Evanston Energy Future to research the possibility of building a wind turbine in Evanston. Last year a separate EDC team worked for the group on the issue of feasibility.

When students determined that building a turbine would be possible, the only question left was, “where?”

This year’s team considered Evanston sites near the Evanston Water Treatment Plant, 555 Lincoln St.; the Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Blvd.; and James Park, located at the intersection of Dodge Avenue and Oakton Street.

But in the end the team’s members determined the best location was near NU’s Lakefill, where the turbine would be flanked by Lake Michigan.

“The brunt of the winds come through this area and we’re not utilizing it, so it’s basically a waste of energy,” Choksey said. “(Building a turbine) is just a good way to harness that energy.”

But in addition to its functional purpose, a wind turbine also could serve as an educational tool and raise awareness about energy concerns.

“The energy that we’re generating is very important,” Choksey said, “but I think the main purpose is for the education, so the children of Evanston and we in Northwestern can see it and see how important renewable energy is and how important it should be.”

Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Larry Henschen, one of the two advisers for the EDC team, said he thought building a turbine could produce advantages for several departments on campus. Students in sociology and political science, for example, could study “what kind of government regulations you have to satisfy to have such a device so it could serve a number of different uses.”

“In engineering, we could use it literally to study how much power you could generate from wind or what the actual power generation mechanism is,” Henschen said. “And social sciences might see it as an example of how an alternate form of energy fits in with a community.”

Before construction, however, the estimated $70,000 structure first must be approved by NU’s Facilities Management, the department responsible for building projects and maintenance.

Director of Facilities Management Operations Gary Wojtowicz wrote in an e-mail that “Facilities Management is currently reviewing wind power alternatives … as it applies to the university’s energy consumption and future emissions.”

Wojtowicz noted that “Illinois is listed in a Class III wind zone with average velocities less than 16 mph,” while wind turbines operate more effectively in Class IV or higher zones.

But Ross Vagnieres, an Evanston Energy Future volunteer who works with the EDC team, said he thinks that information may be misleading.

“It’s very selective — it all depends on where in Illinois,” he said.

Vagnieres said he thinks a turbine could be built within the next year and a half.

The EDC team sent a survey to various campus listservs and Evanston residents to gauge the interest level in the project, and the team said most responses have been positive so far.

One of the concerns people have expressed, however, has been of the aesthetic quality of the turbine. But Rosner said she thinks the structure could actually turn into a landmark.

“I think it adds to the landscape,” Rosner said.