he day of the ribbon-cutting ceremony was, appropriately, very windy. At the base of the newly erected 750-kilowatt turbine, attendees braved thirty-mile-an-hour gusts, while above them three blades sliced away at the Iowa sky. When Harold Overmann, the retired superintendent of Spirit Lake's schools, stepped to the microphone, he pointed out that over the past hour, the 180-foot-high turbine had created enough energy to power one Spirit Lake residence for a full six months.
This was actually the second wind turbine that the school district of Spirit Lake, tucked up in an empty corner of northern Iowa, had bought and built in the past eight years. The first one, at 250 kilowatts, saved the schools some $20,000 a year. Once the second is paid off, the annual savings from both could be as much as $125,000.
How is it that a school district with 1,300 students in a sparsely populated section of the Hawkeye State managed to install the first large-scale wind turbine in the Midwest? Overmann gives the credit to the students themselves. "I went into this biology class on Earth Day 1991 to talk about the need to preserve the environment," he recalls, "and the students challenged me as I had never been challenged before. 'If the school is so interested in preserving our environment,' they asked, 'why do we use Styrofoam cups in our lunch program? Why do we rely so much on fossil fuels?' They really grilled me."
Overmann, a hearty, no-nonsense native Iowan, became obsessed with clean energy. He and Jim Tirevold, the building and grounds manager, spent months researching biomass before stumbling upon the obvious project. Spirit Lake and its 4,000 residents live some 200 feet above the Iowa grasslands on Buffalo Ridge, a 75-mile-long rise that's been referred to as "the Saudi Arabia of wind energy."
The local utility company was hardly impressed with Overmann and Tirevold's plans to buy themselves a turbine. "The utility was telling our community that no other school district in the country was doing such a fool thing, that it was all just an ego trip for the superintendent," Overmann says.
But the school board stood behind the two men. So did Iowa's Department of Natural Resources, which provided a low-interest loan, and so did the U.S. Department of Energy, which kicked in a grant. In the summer of 1993, the first turbine provided all the electricity the elementary school needed, as well as a surplus.
Since then, wind power has made its way into Spirit Lake's curriculum, and if the high-school physics teacher is right, every year the new turbine will prevent emissions of 2,648,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, 3,777 pounds of sulfur oxide, and hundreds of tons of other pollutants.