Jeff Bennett ’10 (left) and Albert Wright '10
Turbine project teaches students about renewable energy
How do you build a wind turbine from scratch?
This question perplexed Jeff Bennett '10 and Albert Wright '10 a year ago, after environmental science Professor Joe Bowersox asked them to take on the challenge.
"We didn't really know what was entailed in building a wind turbine," Wright says. "But if you ask me to do something, I'll sign up pretty easily. I love learning new things."
Wright's enthusiasm was a perfect match for Bennett's background in electronics and construction, and after a semester of research and hours of manual labor, the two produced a 25-foot-high turbine that generates about 600 watts of electricity on windy days.
The turbine sat atop Collins Science Center during the fall semester, and now it resides at Zena Forest, Willamette's outdoor research station. The goal is for the turbine to power electrical fences and an irrigation system for a student-run farm.
"I hope this project will not only symbolize sustainable development at Willamette, but also spark the imagination of our community," Bennett says. "This collaborative research project has become an important symbol, both for myself and many other students, of what can be accomplished when leadership and student innovation come together."
Bowersox hopes the turbine will also bring attention to wind as an alternative energy source. The U.S. wind power industry has grown rapidly in recent years - The New York Times recently reported that the industry added 39 percent more capacity in 2009, bringing the country close to receiving 2 percent of its electricity from wind turbines.
Bowersox also proposed the project because he saw it as a valuable practical learning experience for the students. Willamette's Center for Sustainable Communities, which Bowersox directs, awarded Bennett and Wright a grant to help pay for their work.
They didn't need as much money as they might have expected - the cost for all the parts was about $720.
The students started by looking for books, manuals or websites on how to build turbines, but they only found partial plans - none of the existing literature took them through the entire process from start to finish.
Eventually they pieced together information from different sources to create their blueprints.
"There are a lot of products on the market that say they'll teach you how to build a wind generator, but they actually don't have a way for you to feasibly create one," Bennett says. "That was one of our first hurdles.
"Also, when we started this project, we couldn't purchase the parts we needed. We had to manufacture everything by hand."
Bennett and Wright hope to create their own literature to help others build their own turbines at home.
Wright's newfound knowledge on electricity led him to another project: building a solar panel. Funded by another sustainability grant from Willamette, Wright created a 48-watt panel that attaches to a box on wheels, making it portable.
"Both of these projects - the solar panel and the turbine - could be a weekend project for anyone," he says. "It really is not more intense than anything you learned in high school shop class."
These new skills also have inspired Wright to bring renewable energy sources to communities in need of electricity.
"I hope to join the Peace Corps after graduation and build wind turbines and solar panels in rural areas that need just a small energy input for their agricultural needs," he says. "My eventual goal is to run my grandparents' cherry farm in eastern Washington and turn it into a place to teach others about alternative energy and sustainable agriculture."
Bowersox says the turbine project is a strong example of the resourcefulness of Willamette students.
"Their goal wasn't simply to create a demonstration project for Willamette," he says. "They are testing outside theories about home wind power and sharing their developments beyond the Willamette community. That's the idea behind sustainability at Willamette - we have the flexibility and the interest to be a laboratory for something that influences broader discussions beyond our campus."