A Big Win for Wind Power in Virginia

Jun 12, 2018

When it comes to wind power, 12 states produce 80% of the energy, and Virginia is not among them. But that could be changing.  At KidWind, a national competition of high school students determined to design new turbines, five of  18 teams came from the Commonwealth  and the winners hailed from a tiny school in Bath County. 

Students from a small high school in southern Virginia took top honors at this year's KidWind competition.
Credit Bath County High School

Bath County High School has just over 200 students making it one of the smallest in the state, but its tech center is sizable with a workshop that’s 4,800 square feet, packed with power tools and equipment.

“We have drill presses, table saws, joiners, planes, drum sanders, miter saws, scroll saws, pipe working tools, welding equipment, soldering equipment, electrical equipment, plumbing equipment,” says carpentry coach Joe Altzer. 

In short, he adds, it was the perfect place to build a better wind turbine.

“It’s a good shop for a project like this because if they want to do something, we have the tool that can get the job done.”

And while students are tech-savvy, they did their work the old-fashioned way.

“We used T-bevels, protractors for our angles.  We made jigs for the saws so we could reproduce each cut pretty accurately – hand tools instead of the computer,” Altizer explains.

They spent hours before, during and after school applying what they had learned in class, according to Technology and Engineering teacher Ed Ozols.

“You know when you’re sitting in a geometry class, it’s like, ‘Why do I have to learn this?’ Sitting in algebra class, ‘Why do I have to learn this?’ You have to learn it because if you don’t have that information you can’t do what we’re doing here,” he says.

And they thought hard about the importance of presentation. They polished their communication skills to explain what they did, why they did it and how they did it.

And after a devastating loss two years ago in New Orleans, Ozols says, they ditched their blue jeans and Ts for matching blue golf shirts and khakis.

“We had to look professional!” Ozols says.

They traveled to McCormick Place in Chicago – a giant space for meetings and trade shows. 

“The conference center that we were in was 2.5 million square feet,” Alitzer recalls.  I took several pictures of  just the conference center.”

They watched the Cubs play ball at Wrigley Field, defied local dietary law by putting ketchup on their Chicago-style hotdogs, and discovered deep dish pizza.

“Two pizzas was 20 pounds,” Altizer jokes, “but it was delicious.  The cheese was amazing.”

Fortified, they went into battle – presenting their turbine – four feet tall,  made from steel pipe and pine. 

“When they put it in the high-speed  tunnel in Chicago, we were actually putting out 28 volts, and actually burned a hole in the carpet where the resister was sitting on the floor,” Altizer recalls.

“We made more than three times as much power as anyone else,” Ozols adds.  

“The judges were even taking pictures of it.  They’d just never seen that much power in that short a time,” says Altizer.

Bath County High School teacher Joe Altizer shows the award-winning turbine that generated three times more power than any other entry.

Industry leaders came calling, collecting business cards from the kids, urging them to keep in touch, and students like Matthew McCune, Jacob McComb, and Tyler Thompson said they would. 

“Yes ma’am.  I’m big into wind energy. It’s something that matters, and it’s going to make a difference,” says McCune. 

“There’s a lot of opportunity out there. They was giving job offers out just like that – internships and everything.  It’s just a big industry,” McComb adds.

Have they thought about supp0lying their own homes with electricity via wind? 

“I’m not in a real windy spot,” Thompson explains, “but I’ve got a river beside me, so definitely hydro.”

Driving to the competition in Chicago’s rush hour was a misery,

“A lot of people, a lot of traffic,” says Altizer. “The phone would say, ‘2.2 miles.  You have 54 minutes to get to your destination.”

But the coaches agree – coming home was a joy.

“Yes, we think of it like we won the Super Bowl.” Ozols says.

“I veered off  64,” Altizer recalls.  “We brought it from the big city, across Gathrait Dam and up this little back road before we crossed the line, and that’s how we brought the national championship home.”

Their prize was $750, and since none of them are seniors they’ll use that money to build an even better turbine next year.