We need to compromise during economic distress

By Paul Schmitt

In December, students learned that a promising project for campus energy on the University of Illinois South Farms – one General Electric wind turbine capable of producing enough energy to remove six campus buildings annually from the grid (according to some estimates) – was being indefinitely postponed. While the prospects of having the production of clean wind energy were exciting to nearly everyone in the campus community, the hefty price tag (approaching nearly $6 million for the one turbine by some estimates) was enough to re-evaluate whether the time is right for this project.

I applaud Chancellor Richard Herman for his careful review of this item. While I support the generation of clean energy and a sustainable campus, I find myself incredulous over the prospect of spending this amount of money on a new project, when students and their families are struggling to pay the bills in the midst of an economic crisis. Certainly, while we, as a University community, can never stop moving forward as a leader in higher education and technological development, we must be sensible as to the needs of the generation of new leaders that we are producing.

It is unfortunate that the original project, which called for three turbines on the south farms at a much lower individual cost was not able to move forward in a more timely fashion when the University originally began this venture. Yet, we must operate with the budget that we have, not the budget that we would like to have, and therefore, must call for fiscal responsibility in the midst of an economic crisis. Though I have my own positive opinions about this particular project and have been lobbied thoroughly by the group Students for Environmental Concerns, my duty to look after the best interest of a student body numbering nearly 39,000 persuades me to back the Chancellor’s decision for postponement. I hope the campus community will also appreciate this responsible decision.

Additionally, it is important to note that this particular project, while supported by all in concept, had some major strategic errors that make it a tough sell given the current climate. Figures for the return on investment for the turbine went as high as 21 years according to University administration. The placement of the turbine on the South Farms also leaves this investment on grounds not necessarily conducive to maximum energy production. Further, the loss of two other potential wind turbines for the given value greatly diminishes the practical purposes of the project.

It is my hope that this project is not dead but is merely put on hold while we deal with the issues that dominate the concerns of the UI community. It is only sensible that our administration focus nearly all their efforts on saving the jobs of thousands employed by the University of Illinois system and the affordability and quality of a University of Illinois education. Additionally, the promise of President Barack Obama’s commitment to investing in America’s infrastructure and in clean energy and the new jobs that this commitment could produce further give us incentive to wait and see.

There are those students, specifically those who are most passionate about sustainability and green energy, that have sharply excoriated Chancellor Herman and his decision for postponement. They argue that he has single-handedly defeated a great symbol of progress and sustainability for this campus. They argue that the turbine, if built, will actually save the University money in the future and will amount to a great investment for the campus. They argue steadfastly that this turbine’s future is in the best interest in students and that students will see a direct benefit from its construction. I disagree with all of these arguments.

While green energy is a positive thing that we need to move forward with when appropriate, it will not pay your tuition bills as students. In the span of a $4 billion budget, it will not save the sums of money needed to retain and recruit quality faculty, not to mention replace and repair our $1 billion in deferred maintenance at the UI. This project is a promising one, but we must rise to the challenges that are currently before us before spending our tight budgets on “great symbols” of clean energy on this campus. A compromise on this issue between all interested parties will lead to a logical and practical policy for the Champaign-Urbana campus.

Paul Schmitt

Student Member

Board of Trustees