Turbine_fieldIt’s hard to forget about the renewable power of wind when you’re in the presence of the 365 foot, 1.65 megawatt wind turbine perched near the summit of St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. A few miles from St. Olaf I get my first glimpse of the tower, which fades in and out of sight as I drive through the contours of farmland. Three huge blades spin across an otherwise unblemished skyline, efficiently harvesting "a crop of kilowatts" from the air while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A few minutes later, I meet Pete Sandberg, Assistant Vice President of Facilities, who has agreed to give me a tour of the many green facets of campus. At each stop –- the composting building, the wetlands, the prairie, and the organic farm –- I look for the turbine to orient myself. It stands as a perpetual witness of St. Olaf’s environmental commitment, described on St. Olaf’s sustainability website as "a Statue of Liberty and a declaration of independence, freeing people from their unthinking dependence on fossil fuels." Pete informs me that the project cost a total of $2.5 million to build; $1.5 million came from the utility Xcel Energy, which Minnesota’s legislature has required to fund renewable energy projects. Annually, the turbine provides up to 1/3 of St. Olaf’s electricity, or 5.7 million kWh, and a savings of about $295,000 per year.

While the bottom line is an important consideration for St. Olaf, Pete reveals that the college is equally or more concerned about doing what is right – right for the education of its students, right for its relationship with the land, and right from a perspective of moral values and its Lutheran faith. What does this mean in practice? A diverse and dedicated group of environmental stewards on campus have worked on projects like reforesting previously mowed areas with groves of trees (which store carbon and save on fuel, equipment, and labor), developing sustainable design guidelines, which declare that the college will reuse and recycle all demolition waste (90% on a recent project, which slashed tipping fees and the energy used to manufacture new materials), and restoring agricultural and other surrounding lands to their natural condition before European settlers arrived. By incorporating a range of educational, environmental, social, and financial considerations into its decision-making processes, St. Olaf has seamlessly integrated an environmental ethic throughout the work of the college.

Turbine buildingWe head back toward the core of campus and contemplate the turbine from up close, its steady motion audible in the crisp, May breeze. I close my eyes and hear the ocean advancing and retreating along an ever-shifting shoreline. Pete tells me that initially there were comments from students in the nearest residence hall that they could hear the turbine and were concerned it might be an issue. But after a while, the concern subsided as the gentle sound receded further into the background and the structure simply became another feature of their environment.  A feature, I imagine, that is a source of pride, a symbol of our potential to safeguard the livelihoods of our children and co-exist peacefully with other species. Most of all, it is proof that colleges have the power — whether wind, solar, geothermal, or biomass – to rekindle hope in human ingenuity and reverse our toll on the Earth’s climate.