Wind turbine installation elevates sustainable energy opportunities at Western

Contact: Erin Flynn
A wind turbine technician stands in the bucket of a cherry picker high above a group of Bronco Wind Team members.

Bronco Wind Team members braved the cold to watch a refurbished wind turbine be installed outside the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The winds of change are powering new opportunities for engineering students at Western Michigan University with the re-installation of a wind turbine near the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences building in the Parkview Campus.

Funded by a grant from REpowering Schools, Western collaborated with Kalamazoo Valley Community College to rehabilitate the equipment, which hadn't been used in several years. The upgrade will help open a new chapter in sustainability education at the University when paired with the solar arrays on campus.

Technicians secure the blades on a wind turbine.

The turbine is visible on U.S. 131 in near Parkview Ave. in Kalamazoo County.

"Having this refurbished and brought back up to speed paves the way for us to create a sustainable energy generation certificate at both the graduate and undergraduate levels," says Brian Montgomery, faculty advisor to the newly created Bronco Wind Team and director of the Bronco Construction Research Center. "Students are looking for the ability to complement their degrees with research and certifications in sustainability to meet the growing demand in the industry. And this will give them that edge in the field."

The turbine project is being led by the Bronco Wind Team, a registered student organization selected to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy's Collegiate Wind Competition. The group is charged with designing, building and presenting a unique, wind-driven power system for a hypothetical offshore wind farm in the Great Lakes based on scientific and market research. Students also partner with wind industry professionals to raise awareness of wind energy and strengthen their professional networks.

Keilan McCann, a mechanical engineering student and Bronco Wind Team president, says this is the type of experience-driven learning that will stick with him long after graduation.

"We're actually doing something important beyond sitting in a classroom and doing work, crunching numbers and exploring theories. We're putting something in the soil that I can come back 20 years later with my kids and with my grandkids … and say, 'I helped build this,'" he says. "This is why I came to Western."

Western's contingent is one of 32 elite teams to make the first cut in the contest, putting the Broncos in the same league as well-known high research institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, University of California - Los Angeles (UCLA) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

A group of students stands together outside.

Bronco Wind Team members are working on different facets of the Collegiate Wind Challenge through their senior design projects, which focus on things like wind turbine efficiency and blade design.

"We have a very robust aerospace engineering program, with technologies that only exist here at Western Michigan University, in addition to our other top-tier engineering programs. And we have very bright students. We think that sets ourselves up very well to compete against the best of the best—and win."

After a performance-based selection process, Collegiate Wind Competition organizers will narrow the field to 12 teams in January 2024. Those finalists will receive $15,000 to complete their projects and build a prototype turbine to be tested at the final event in Minneapolis, Minnesota in May, with $30,000 in prize money on the line.

"I feel like we also have the capabilities and the technology here (at Western) to really build our wind turbine, where other colleges don't have that," adds Patrick Leny, an aerospace engineering student and Bronco Wind Team member.

With the installation of the turbine, Western has earned the designation of Wind Application Center—the only university in Michigan to hold that title.

"It really shows not only a theoretical commitment from the college but a physical, economic commitment to green energy and the implementation of this technology," says McCann.

In addition to researching and developing their own wind turbine technology, Bronco Wind Team members are also doing community outreach. They've organized and led workshops for local K-12 teachers through the KidWind initiative. Western will host a KidWind Challenge on campus in February 2024, hosting students from various school districts and helping them create their own wind technology. Statewide KidWind Challenge winners will advance to the national competition in May.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.

A group photo of the Bronco Wind Team holding a banner.

The Bronco Wind Team is competing against the top universities in the country to develop wind turbine technology in the Department of Energy's Collegiate Wind Competition.