Trends in Green (Sustainable Innovations on Campus)

Greening the Urban Environment

Downtown Dallas has few urban oases. Anyone who works and lives in this Texas mega-city knows that parks, grass, trees and anything that resembles a landscape is hard to find. They won’t find any tree farms, either.

Imagine the surprise among downtown residents when El Centro College (ECC) announced a unique farm effort on the roof of its tallest central campus building — a wind turbine farm. Curious onlookers can get a glimpse from the ground of a wind farm in action as they wait for commuter trains to arrive at the nearby West End station, or industrious exercise fanatics can watch turbines rotating from the windows of the Texas Club as they work out in the fitness center several stories above the college.

Described as the only wind farm in Dallas County, El Centro’s “farm” doesn’t require any soil or water — just a breeze and whirling blades that can generate energy to run computers and save money. It’s a first for our college and for downtown Dallas. And since this was one of the first buildings to actually have electricity in downtown Dallas, it seemed like a natural progression.

Why Downtown?

Students, faculty and administrators who participated in Earth Day activities in April watched the start-up of 40 wind turbines — now actually 80 — as the blades turned gently in the breeze that circulates among downtown Dallas high-rise buildings. Students and employees viewed a live feed on televisions in the ECC Student Center mid-afternoon.

Why try a downtown setting where buildings bake in the sun and concrete makes life hot for commuters and residents alike? Those tall buildings actually contribute to breezes that race around corners and push pedestrians along as they walk on busy city blocks.

The wind always blows around and across our main campus. Everyone knows it but never seems to think about it. That’s when I began to wonder, about six years ago, whether we could harness some of that free energy for our own use — and perhaps save some money in the process.

Why Now?

“Now” actually took a number of years. Research, planning, purchasing and logistics all were part of the process. This year, we finally saw the end result.

El Centro purchased 80 miniature wind turbines, all made in the United States, at a total cost of $240,000, which includes the infrastructure — a metal grid to support the equipment — and the turbines themselves. The turbines have a life expectancy of 25 to 30 years, and they will generate enough power to run the approximately 2,000 computers that we have in our labs on the main campus. We should recover the cost of the turbines in about 15 to 20 years.

We used a formula to calculate and arrive at those estimates: the number of hours in a year (8,700) multiplied by the number of kilowatts generated per wind turbine array (20), multiplied by the number of arrays (four). We also multiplied those numbers by actual wind production time, estimated at approximately 50 percent, and by our cost per kilowatt-hour ($.055).

Practically speaking, here’s what those energy numbers mean. El Centro converted 1,500 desktop tower computers at our downtown campus to thin-client cloud-based desktops. Each of the old towers would consume approximately 1,100 kilowatts of power a year, at a cost of $60.50. Each of the converted thin-client towers uses 34.56 KWH per year at a cost of $1.90. The comparison makes it clear why our investment in the turbines will save us money by using our own wind energy.

Why Here?

The turbines, manufactured in California, were assembled earlier in April by Amarillo-based Hydro-Star Energy. Early one Saturday morning, a large crane hoisted beams — with 10 turbines attached to each one — up to the roof of El Centro’s “A” Building; the beams support the wind turbines as they turn.

Locating a wind farm on an urban college campus like El Centro in downtown Dallas helps us to accomplish two goals: energy conservation and workforce development. First, we create our own energy to save money and resources. Second, our wind turbine farm will help us create partnerships with companies that want to work with El Centro College to provide training and program possibilities for our students. We want to be environmentally conscientious and also to show our students that they can find career opportunities in wind energy.

We have a holistic plan for conservation — we’re not doing just one project at a time. We are proud that our wind turbine farm is the next step in that holistic conservation plan for El Centro College.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

David Browning is vice president for business services at El Centro College (www.elcentrocollege.edu), located in downtown Dallas, TX.

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