Alternative energy a hot topic at MCCC

MEGAN BADGER / WIRE PHOTO
An energy demonstration project at Montgomery County Community College has raised concerns among neighboring residents. The purpose of the project is to educate students and community members about alternative energy using solar panels and residential-size wind turbines.

By Megan Badger

Wire Managing Editor

Montgomery County Community College is exploring the use of alternative energy.

But, not everyone in the community is excited about it.

The college is seeking approval from the township to install two sets of solar panels and four 22-foot-tall wind turbines on the Blue Bell campus at 340 DeKalb Pike, at the corner of DeKalb Pike (Route 202) and Morris Road.

The Whitpain Township Planning Commission was scheduled to vote on the college’s proposal at the March 12 meeting, but due to a plethora of concerned neighbors and community members who showed up, the issue was tabled until next month.

Tom Freitag, vice president of finance and administration for MCCC, gave a detailed presentation to the board and attendees explaining the plan. Representatives from Siemens, the company that is heading the project, were also in attendance and assisted with the presentation.

Freitag explained that the solar panels and wind turbines are part of an energy demonstration project, and will produce very little power. The purpose of the project is to educate students and community members about alternative energy, he said, as well as to power the 10 existing car-charging stations in the adjacent “green parking lot,” used for carpoolers and people driving eco-friendly vehicles.

“What we are proposing to do is put in place two different pieces of this particular energy conservation measure,” Freitag explained to the board. “The first is solar panels, which consist of two sets of solar panels, which would cover about 1,000 square feet of space. They would be placed behind a burm so they would be well shielded from the roadway especially when we put planting around them, which is our intent.

“The other part of what we plan to do on the site is install four wind turbines, which would be placed along the parking lot,” he continued. “They are 22 feet in height, with 7 feet of that height taken up by the turbine itself, which will spin with a very small amount of wind.”

At 22 feet, the turbines will be 2 feet taller than the light poles that currently stand in the green parking lot. The sound of the turbines will reach no higher than 38 decibels, according to Siemens, which is quieter than a normal speaking voice, 40 decibels.

The wind turbine manufacturer, Urban Green Energy, specializes in vertical-axis turbines that are smaller, quieter and are able to harness winds from all directions. These wind turbines aren’t the typical machines used for wind farms — they are much smaller and have a helix design, as opposed to the traditional three-blade structure. UGE designed the turbines be used in urban settings, as well as rural settings, because of their smaller size.

Blue Bell residents that live near the MCCC main campus voiced concerns about the impact of the wind turbines. Some were concerned about noise and decreasing property values, while others didn’t buy into the motivation behind the project. Most of the community members in attendance were residents of the three neighboring Blue Bell housing developments: Pheasant Run, Windermere and Normandy.

David Greenlee, a resident of the Normandy development, said he applauded the school for its efforts, but was disappointed that the installation of the solar panels and wind turbines will never generate enough electricity for the college to profit.

Greenlee also brought up the issue of sound frequency distribution, which is different from the decibel reading that was part of Freitag’s presentation. The representatives from Siemens were unable to provide sound frequency statistics up front, which is one of the reasons that the committee decided to table the issue.

Dina Lucas, another Normandy resident, had similar concerns about the sound frequency.

“Siemens should be able to give us the numbers and statistics to reassure us that we’re not going to have a problem with the decibel level, that we’re not going to have a problem with the frequency,” Lucas said.

Other residents thought the school should explore other locations for the project that aren’t as close to residential communities.

Resident Kevin O’Brien said he was worried about the wind turbines and solar panels being an eyesore.

“You’re making a statement now in our back yard, and it’s very different than building a building that students are going to use,” O’Brien said.

Freitag assured residents that the solar panels would be partly shielded from the street by an existing burm and by plants. The college has already planted red maple trees along Morris Road, he said, and plans to plant additional vegetation once the structures are put up.

Two residents spoke in favor of the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting, including Ellen Codd, who said both her and her husband fully support the demonstration project.

Despite some support, there was an overwhelming consensus that more information had to be available to residents before the college went forward with plans.

The Planning Commission will meet again on April 9. If they approve the plan, it will then be reviewed by the Board of Supervisors.

For Whitpain Township meeting times and information, visit www.whitpaintownship.net.