Alternative Funding

Nebraska Wind Farms Generate Tech Funds for School District

When the Nebraska Public Power District started looking into wind farms as potential sources of electricity seven years ago, Bob Marks had no idea what impact the initiative would have on his school district. The project started with a few years' worth of wind studies, said Marks, superintendent for Bloomfield Community Schools in Bloomfield, NE, and wrapped up this year with a financial windfall for the city's 240-student K-12 school.

According to Marks, Elkhorn Ridge wind farm has translated into a school district valuation increase of $122 million to $340 million, which equates to a significant increase in the school's property tax revenue for 2009. The district is exploring different uses of the windfall, including the purchase of new hardware and software to boost the school's technology infrastructure.

Nebraska Public Power District has signed a 20-year agreement to buy the electricity from the project, which is scheduled for completion in 2010. The C-BED project is being built jointly by four Nebraska-based nonprofit groups: American Corn Growers Foundation, American Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Farmers Union, and the Nebraska Farmers Union Foundation.

The bulk of the property tax money, estimated at $2.4 million, will go to Bloomfield Community Schools, according to Marks, who said the financial distribution started in August. He said the district's wish list includes building or remodeling its junior-senior high school, buying two new buses and a new 15-passenger van, and providing each 7th- to 12th-grade student with a laptop computer.

Marks said the seven-year process of getting the wind farm in place and running was long and complicated. Getting through the state and federal regulatory hoops took time, as did securing the sale of the electricity to the local utility. It took about two years to construct transmission lines capable of handling that electricity. Today, Elkhorn Ridge is the largest wind farm in the state in terms of generation capacity.

Even with the infrastructure in place and regulatory hurdles passed, he said, Marks couldn't imagine the positive impact that the wind farm would have on his school district. "We had no idea exactly how much additional financing it would provide," said Marks, "we just had to wait until the property valuations came out."

When they did, a pleasantly surprised Marks was able to start budgeting for new technology improvements at the K-12 school. One of his first stops was at Apple, which entered into a four-year lease with the school to provide seventh- through 12th-graders with laptops. Marks said a portion of the laptop initiative was covered by federal stimulus funding. "We put together a four-year plan that's costing the district about $167,000," he said.

Marks said the school now has new servers, laptops, and the software used to monitor students' online activity. The school has also used the additional funding to purchase interactive smart boards and LCD projectors for every classroom.

"Our goal is for our staff to use technology extensively," said Marks, who added that the district also uses the services of technology professionals who handle the Internet monitoring, staff training, and hardware maintenance. "We have well over 200 computers here now," he remarked. "A day doesn't go by that one of them isn't down and in need of maintenance or repair."

Marks said both faculty and staff are enthusiastic about the school district technology upgrades. "We're asking all of the teachers to integrate more technology into their instruction, and to make use of these new tools," said Marks, who admitted that some teachers are challenged when it comes to meeting those technology initiatives. "The learning curve can be steep, especially for people who aren't computer-savvy."

As a result of the wind farm project, students are also learning the value of alternative energies. Marks said the district is currently using sponsored funds to construct a 45-foot mini-tower that will convert wind into energy. When complete, the mini-tower will be integrated into the K-12 curriculum as a way to promote wind energy, said Marks.

Marks said there could be more wind farm-related financial windfalls ahead for Bloomfield Community Schools, which would benefit from a proposed project that has yet to come to fruition. "There's talk about developing a 600-tower mega-wind farm in our area, extending from Bloomfield to Randolph," said Marks. "If it is ever constructed, the impact on assessed property values would be in the billions of dollars."

Additional wind farms could also be in Nebraska's future. An interim study on wind power is under way by the legislature. Due in December, the policy study will look at adding 7,800 megawatts of wind energy to the state's power grid by 2030.

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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