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Project helps homeowners, town make decisions about alternative energy

The Y Wind & Solar community education and demonstration project began as a discussion and ended with a 28-foot-tall vertical axis wind turbine in the YMCA at Virginia Tech’s parking lot at 1000 N. Main St. in Blacksburg, Va., plus a smaller turbine and a 1,050-watt solar panel array on the roof.

   

Volunteers from Virginia Tech and the surrounding area erected a wind turbine in time for Earth Day 2010, set up a solar array over the summer, and celebrated Sustainability Week. Speaking during the dedication were, upper right, Cortney Martin and Gail Billingsley, and lower left, David Dillard. Volunteers from Virginia Tech and the surrounding area erected a wind turbine in time for Earth Day 2010, set up a solar array over the summer, and celebrated Sustainability Week.

The idea was born when Gail Billingsley, the Y’s executive director, and Cortney Martin, a faculty member with Virginia Tech’s Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research, learned about a $15,000 community action grant for energy research offered through Virginia Tech’s Office of the Vice President for Research. The Y has been a leader in sustainability efforts in Blacksburg, and Martin was working with the Earth Sustainability program. They asked David Dillard, professor in engineering science and mechanics at Virginia Tech, to help lead the effort. The town of Blacksburg joined as a partner to explore ways to add renewable energy systems to the town code.

The team was awarded the grant in April 2009 to demonstrate the feasibility of micro wind-based net metering for Southwest Virginia, with a final report expected within nine months. However, the turbine was barely off the ground a year later, in time for Earth Day on April 19, 2010. Throughout the process, the team learned a lot about communicating about specs and design details with potential vendors, coordinating technical systems, and timing inspections during construction -- all valuable input for the education mission of the project.

The goals of the project are to

  • Educate the public on the process of evaluating wind and solar energy options;
  • Provide a basis for YMCA Open University courses; and
  • Assist in the development of town planning ordinances for wind and solar.

The first classes for the public have been offered, but the effort has been an educational project from the beginning, providing a capstone senior project for six students from the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics. The team worked on a case study that described the selection, cost, design, and installation of the wind turbine and solar panels. There was also hands-on work when it came to engineering and installing the pylon that supports the pole and turbine. 

Engineers without Borders helped with the excavation of the hole and creating the rebar frame and form for the pylon. Pierre LaFlamme of Dublin, a professional engineer, helped with the structural engineering, and Theo Dillaha, a professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, helped with the concrete work.

   

Members of the team include sitting, from left, David Dillard and Cortney Martin; standing, from left, are Walter Brown, Dean Frantz, Steve Gerus, Peter Thompson, Susie Fresca, Dave Roper, Gail Billingsley, and Bryce Carter. Members of the installation team include the following people: Sitting, from left, are David Dillard and Cortney Martin; and standing, from left, are Walter Brown, Dean Frantz, Steve Gerus, Peter Thompson, Susie Fresca, Dave Roper, Gail Billingsley, and Bryce Carter.

But the bulk of the time spent on the project came before the pylon was built. To select a turbine, the team had to compare technical specs, rank performance and price, and then find the desired equipment as manufacturers either went out of business or changed their products. Team members also had to mesh the power electronics and then get the system to communicate. Then the pylon could be designed and built and the system put together.

"It was truly a community effort," Martin said. Read more about the effort here.

Dillard described Martin's contribution this way: "Cortney kept this thing rolling. She has been our fearless leader, organizer, cheerleader, taskmaster, head communicator, PR officer, encourager, reality checker, purchasing agent, and weather forecaster."

Dillard, Martin, and Billingsley also praised the support received from the town of Blacksburg.

"We listened to each other," Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam said. The town wants better information as a basis for reviewing and adopting permanent regulations dealing with wind and solar innovations, he said. "We had a code and a need and we were willing to be flexible." He said the project will be instrumental in helping the town reach its sustainability and climate change prevention goals by 2050.

"The wind turbine is a great addition to town, if for no other reason than to start conversations about alternative energy. Now we’re trying to build on a good thing," said Billingsley, who is submitting proposals for funding for expansion to other energy generating and energy-saving systems.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Susan Trulove at (540) 231-5646.

Multimedia

  • See an image gallery of pictures of the wind turbine and solar panels being installed.
  • Watch a video about the wind turbine project

Meet the team

The project's Senior Design Team is made up of students from Virginia Tech's Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics. Members are:

  • Dan Cook, a senior from Blacksburg, Va.
  • Jake Derlaga, a senior from Middlefield, Conn.
  • Susie Frasca, a senior from Blacksburg, Va.
  • Nick Hammond, a senior from Newark, Del.
  • Chase Siuta, a senior from Virginia Beach, Va.
  • Michael Titus, a senior from Yorktown, Va.

Learn more about the project's steps, technical information, contributors, and team members at the Y Wind & Solar website. The site shows real-time power measurements of energy being generated and total power generated for the day. 

The importance of alternative energy

The Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative estimates that investing in 1,000 megawatts of wind energy in Virginia could result in:   

  • $1.2 billion in annual economic benefits
  • A reduction of 3.0 million tons of carbon dioxide annually
  • Savings of 1.6 billion gallons of water annually

The goals of the Y Wind & Solar project are to:

  • Educate the public on the process of installing wind and solar energy
  • Provide YMCA Open University courses
  • Develop town planning ordinances for wind and solar electric generation facilities

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