As a teacher, I can show my students videos about energy conservation and alternative energy, and we can read books and blogs and view websites about these topics. Those are all good ways to learn! But none of those provide the kind of learning our fourth and sixth graders experienced on a recent trip to Ludington’s Pumped Storage Plant and the Lake Winds Energy Park.
DTE Energy and Consumers Energy both offer “Think Energy” educational programs. They have visited our school to teach the kids about energy use and conservation, a focus in both 4th and 6th grades, so we were eager to extend this by showing them how these ideas eventually become actual projects and structures right here in Michigan that accomplish energy reduction and stewardship goals!
In early May both grades headed to Ludington, where we met up with our tour guide Gene of Gene’s Ventures.
With both classes having studied alternative energy, they were fascinated by the hydroelectric power plant, which pumps water through 6 pipes that are each 29 feet in diameter from the reservoir during the night and then releases it during peak flow time in the daytime when they most need the electricity.
The reservoir is 5 miles around, 2 ½ miles long, and 1 mile across and holds 800 acres of water! We learned they service 1.4 million people all along the way to Detroit from this plant!
Gene then introduced us to the wind turbines.
Do you know that turbines weigh 2 million pounds?!
That was just one of many incredible things we learned. Gene explained that the base of the turbine is 60 feet in diameter, which is a large but rather abstract number if simply read in a book. When Gene placed four students to make the corners of a 60-foot square, the enormity of that size and the implications for building such a big structure dumbfounded us.
That was just the start of it.
Gene challenged the students to think about what resources it would take to build a structure that supported a 2-million-pound turbine, and explained that in that 60-square-foot-box they needed to build a solid cement base going down a whopping 9 feet; the same height as our classroom walls. It takes 50 truckloads of cement to fill in that giant hole!
He also explained that there can only be 1 turbine per 40 acres of land, and that they can only be built on clay, not sand. Consumers Energy tested 100 sites and only 56 had compatible soil conditions for turbine construction in this area of Ludington!
When you drive down the road the turbines look really big, but when you stand next to them they are enormous. The base alone of those giant turbines are 300 feet tall! Gene explained that the blades are 165 feet tall and challenged our group to some mental math to figure out how tall these structures are when built. They figured out that the tallest point is 465 feet tall!
But why that height? Why not 480 or 500? Where did the engineers get that numbers?
“Birds?” wondered one of our students. Nope, not that. “Airplanes?” wondered another. Yes! That’s as tall as they can be without interfering with airspace, since federal regulations prohibit airplanes from flying below 500 feet.
Gene taught the students about the importance of precise angles – the blades can be turned off by rotating them precisely 90 degrees. He told us about the various parts of the turbines and that the box that’s up on the “nose” is called the nacelle and is as big as the school bus they rode to Ludington! “No way!” was their collective response. But when we got under one we found out it’s even bigger.
Gene mentioned that initially some people were concerned about these large wind turbines coming to their area – but explained as our tour went on how these were installed with as little disruption to people, wildlife, and the environment as possible.
For instance, we noticed that turbines were on the left side of the road, but not the right. Gene explained that birds have the flyway zones on the left, so the turbines were placed elsewhere so as to not pose a risk to migrating and flying birds
Gene also explained that some people were concerned about the aesthetics of the hills and valleys and farmlands and he asked our students what we thought of how the turbines looked. Our students observed that, “it’s interesting looking” and “they really did a good job blending them in!”
Additionally, some residents were concerned about something known as “flicker” – which is what happens when the turbines rotate and reflect the sun into people’s yards or homes. Consumers Energy studied this and as a result turn off the turbines at pre-established times so as to prevent this from happening. We learned that turbines can also be turned off for maintenance.
This trip really challenged our students to think about how math, science, and engineering work together to solve real problems. It also brought our classroom discussions and learning about becoming better energy stewards and caring for God’s creation through the use of alternative energy into a whole new light. Our new Foss science curriculum being introduced next year focuses on this kind of problem-solving and we’re eager for continuing opportunities to develop these skills in our students.
Our students experienced energy in action and learned about jobs related to science and engineering and environmental studies. Alternative energy isn’t just our future – it’s their future!