Campuses embrace alternative energy

Former Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson would be proud.

At the approach of the 36th Earth Day, which Nelson championed, several Wisconsin colleges are part of what some energy experts see as a trend: college campuses turning to sustainable energy resources for a slice of their power.

Milwaukee Area Technical College, for example, is working to get a wind turbine that would replace 8 percent of its electricity with wind-generated power. In 2005, 11 percent of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh's power came from sustainable sources, and Nicolet Area Technical College in Rhinelander, Wis. now gets 24 percent of its energy from sustainable sources like wind energy, solar power and biomass — plant or waste matter used as fuel for an energy source.

And the apparent trend of colleges adopting "green" energy sources isn't only a Wisconsin phenomenon. Other Midwestern colleges and universities, such as campuses St. Olaf College and Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., count wind turbines and solar panels among their energy sources, as do other institutions nationwide.

Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., for instance, gets 100 percent of its energy from "green power," according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Marquette does not have a windmill or solar panels, but it does use steam — a "highly efficient form of energy" — for all its heating, according to Director of University Communication Brigid O'Brien Miller.

Sustainable energy resources aren't perfect. Wind turbines don't turn in the stillness, after all, and solar panels can't do much on cloudy days. Some also worry about wind turbines' effect on bird and bat populations.

But with rising fossil fuel prices, the time may be ripe for sustainable energy sources to become significant contributors to schools' power systems, according to George Stone, professor of natural sciences at MATC.

"Energy prices in general have been going up, as are concerns about energy security and climate change," Stone said.

Sources at green-powered universities can't seem to agree on whether colleges are adopting sustainable energy measures in any significant numbers.

"Colleges are leading the way (with sustainable energy) and have been doing so for years now," said Jim Gribble, a spokesman for MATC, which is planning to build a 132-foot, $145,000 wind turbine and two solar cell panels to its Mequon, Wis. campus. "This is a national movement, and I suspect it's international."

Terry Rutlin, a spokesman for Nicolet Area Technical College, is a little less convinced.

"It's hard to pick out one institution as a leader, but colleges and universities definitely are taking on leadership qualities," he said.

David Block, an associate professor of environmental studies and geography at Carroll College, doesn't see much of pattern.

"I'm discouraged because I'm not necessarily seeing campuses like Carroll College moving forward on the sustainable energy front," he said. "Some campuses are embracing alternative energy a lot more than others."

Still, the Environmental Protection Agency lists such heavyweight colleges as Northwestern, Harvard and Duke universities on its Green Power Partnership list of schools using eco-friendly power sources, and U.S. Department of Energy spokesman Tom Welch said there's continued interest in his department's environmental contests (if not a concrete trends of campuses looking to sustainable energy sources).