Engineering professors propose on-campus wind turbine

As new building construction prevails on campus, students may see yet another project begin next fall with a current proposal to install a small wind turbine as soon as this summer.

Associate engineering professors Greg Mowry and John Abraham are the brains behind the proposed turbine, which St. Thomas would use for research only, not as an energy source.

“We would like to have it set up before the end of the summer or sooner if possible, but yet in science there’s a lot more said than done,” Mowry said.

Mowry and Abraham conduct research on alternative energy and wind-powered. However, distance currently prevents them from using the structures with students.

“We’re looking at a particular wind turbine to implement on our campus so we don’t have to drive two, three hours to the actual sites where these things work well,” Mowry said.

Mowry and Abraham propose to use the turbine to provide energy to cell phone towers, Mowry said.

“The purpose of doing the research is to make sure the benefits [of wind power] outweigh the costs [of installing and running wind turbines],” Mowry said. “In an optimistic sense, you go into those things with the hope that it’s going to work or expectations that, ‘Yeah, it’ll work,’ but you have to go prove it.”

Macalester and St. Olaf colleges have similar turbines on their campuses, although Mowry said they serve demonstration purposes instead of research ones. And while those schools’ turbines are off-the-shelf models, Mowry and Abraham propose to  design the St. Thomas turbine themselves.

Undergraduate co-op students or students who work under grant programs for either an internship or summer research would be allowed access to the turbine if the funding pulls through. But not everyone agrees with moving forward with the project.

Freshman Kyle Milbrath, a prospective engineering student, said he prefers that St. Thomas not allot the money for this kind of endeavor until it could pay dividends for the school.

“I think they should be spending money on the wind turbine if they also use it to help reduce energy costs throughout,” Milbrath said.

Milbrath said his current engineering path probably won’t allow him to access the structure if it does go up. However, he said some students and faculty could benefit under the right circumstances.

But according to Mowry, those circumstances are uncertain.

“Basically, until you get the money, you don’t get to do it,” he said. “Once you get the money, you have to go through several cycles of making sure the buildings can withstand the forces. How are you going to put them on the buildings, and how do you put them up?”

Mowry said he hopes if this turbine is built, more might go up in the future and, with more research, may eventually generate power for the school. But that will take some time.

“In the crawl-walk-run sequence, you have to do the research to show the viability before you get there,” he said.

Patrick Stumpf can be reached at