When U.S. Sen. Mark Udall stood in the Senate chamber last summer to argue for an extension of a key wind farm tax credit, he turned to Illinois State research to prove his point.

“Just this month, Illinois State University released a report that estimates that Illinois’ 23 largest wind farms will contribute roughly $5.8 billion to local economies over the lifetimes of these projects,” the Colorado Democrat said.

Illinois State graduate students Jared Hayden ’12 and Sarah Noll ’12 already knew that. They helped crunch the numbers in the economic impact report that Udall cited, “which was cool,” Noll said. “We knew it was us.”

Illinois is a major player in the American wind energy industry, ranking fourth among U.S. states in overall installed wind capacity, and No. 1 overall in 2011 with 404 new turbines installed. At the center of the state’s vibrant wind energy industry is Illinois State, whose students, researchers and alumni are shaping wind developments and related public policy issues around the country.

The University’s wind wisdom is fueled by the Center for Renewable Energy, which debuted in 2008 with initial funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. The center anchors the University’s renewable energy major and is home to the Illinois Wind Working Group, comprised of 200 key wind industry stakeholders.

The center traces its history to a group of faculty members who, more than a decade ago, dreamed of putting a wind turbine on the University Farm north of campus. That never happened because they decided to aim higher, focusing instead on building an interdisciplinary renewable energy curriculum and outreach program.

Initial work on the turbine project helped the Center for Renewable Energy gain a foothold in the industry, as did Illinois State’s physical location, said David Loomis, director of the center. McLean County and neighboring counties, as it turns out, carry average wind speeds and other features that make them prime locations for installing turbines.

Working across disciplines

Today there are more than 100 students enrolled in the renewable energy major and 74 graduates, including Hayden and Noll, who are now pursuing their master’s degrees. A grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation also helped finish a state-of-the-art renewable energy lab in Turner Hall, featuring a wind tunnel and a trailer-mounted remote wind sensor Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) device, among other tools.

Illinois State’s renewable energy program is unique because it’s truly interdisciplinary, Loomis said. The center’s faculty leadership is a diverse bunch, with expertise ranging from economics and agriculture to technology. It’s a perfect mix for new graduates whose first job out of college may be wind farm project development, requiring them to adroitly work with farmers, landowners, neighbors, and county board members.

“That job in part requires you to have a lot of facets. You don’t have to be an expert in any one facet,” Loomis said. “The interdisciplinary approach prepares our students better than just giving them part of the picture.”

Whether it’s the altruistic lure of clean energy or the desire to work in an exciting, developing field, students are drawn to the major for different reasons.

Casey Robertson ’10 got a job with American Wind Energy Management Corp., a small wind developer based in Springfield, after graduating with her renewable energy degree. Robertson’s concentration at Illinois State was in public policy and economics, with one of her standout classes involving roundtable discussions about important court cases in energy regulation and related policymaking issues.

But the major didn’t lock her into one career path over another. For her capstone class, for example, she laid out a small solar installation project for a home. The work involved looking at where to install the panels, which ones to choose, how to find grants to buy them, and estimating the possible return on investment.

Robertson said her young career in wind is exciting, in part because the industry is evolving so quickly. And she’s fulfilling her primary motivation for choosing renewable energy—doing something that will benefit society as a whole. Indeed, Illinois’ 42 wind farm projects collectively produce enough clean energy to avoid production of 4.7 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

“I wanted to make an impact with my career on the world around me,” Robertson said.

Also making an impact is the Illinois Wind Working Group (IWWG), which is led by Loomis and professors David Kennell from the Department of Technology and Randy Winter from the Department of Agriculture. Assistant professor Jin Jo from the Department of Technology is also an associate director at the Center for Renewable Energy. The IWWG hosts statewide conferences for industry leaders and smaller events for niche audiences, such as one targeted at county board members focused on siting, zoning and taxing issues.

Illinois State’s wind research provides the industry with a much needed resource, namely unbiased information. That’s where graduates Hayden and Noll come in with their work on the economic impact document.

They were tasked with updating the 2011 report for 2012, meaning they had to crunch the numbers for the six new wind farms that came online. They used the Jobs and Economic Development Impacts (JEDI) model, plotting out on a spreadsheet how much money was spent on the different turbine components, where that money was spent, how many jobs that spending created directly and indirectly, and so on.

The tricky part is that some companies on the wind energy manufacturing supply chain aren’t exactly eager to turn over their proprietary financial data to Illinois State’s researchers.

“The companies, to stay competitive, don’t want to reveal their exact costs,” Noll said.

Such obstacles did not discourage her or Hayden, who grew up about 40 miles east of Normal in the town of Fisher. He could see McLean County’s 240-turbine Twin Groves wind farms from his family’s home. After two years at the University of Illinois, he transferred to Illinois State for the renewable energy program.

“It’s an up-and-coming, exciting field,” Hayden said.

Moving to wind

The Twin Groves turbines produce about 400 megawatts annually—enough to power more than 130,000 typical American households for a whole year.

A key member of the team that developed Twin Groves was Bob Crowell, who got his M.B.A. at Illinois State in 1995.

Crowell’s early career was spent in more traditional forms of energy, first on the natural gas side of Illinois Power, then for a sister company involved in coal-fired and other types of power generation. After being exposed to wind energy back in 1998 through a small wind farm project in Costa Rica, Crowell was recruited in 2001 to join a small company called Zilkha Renewable Energy, where he put together the company’s pipeline of wind projects throughout the Midwest and Great Lakes regions.

“It was a flaky part of the industry back then. It was anything but mainstream,” Crowell said. “A lot of people thought I was kind of nuts. But I liked the culture. I liked the idea of being back at a small company.”

Crowell and his colleagues at Zilkha—later renamed Horizon Wind Energy and now EDP Renewables—spent four years developing Twin Groves before the first phase was approved and built. Big, tall wind turbines tend to draw a lot of attention and often controversy.

“You make the circuit, talking to the movers and shakers in the local communities—whether it’s Bloomington-Normal, Arrowsmith, Saybrook. You go to the Lions Club, the churches,” Crowell said. “You do that so no one thinks it’s being snuck in under the wire.”

Crowell likes being in on the ground floor in business. In fact, he’s been the 13th person hired at three different companies, including Zilkha. He was No. 13 at his current company, Brooklyn-based OwnEnergy, which partners with landowners to develop renewable energy projects.

As OwnEnergy’s chief development officer, he’s leading projects around the U.S. Last year was a challenging one for the wind industry, Crowell said. There was uncertainty over the production tax credit that Sen. Udall and others were backing, leading to stalled projects and even layoffs. It wasn’t until Congress reached a last-minute deal on the so-called “fiscal cliff” that the wind production tax credit was extended, only then through the end of 2013.

Robertson also acknowledged the impact of the stalled tax credit last year, yet she remains optimistic about the future.

“I only see it going up,” she said of the industry as a whole, “because the fuel for wind energy is free.”

VIDEO: Take a video tour of Illinois State’s renewable energy lab in Turner Hall:

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