Rockford Airport’s step into the energy future

The recent announcement of the Rockford Airport’s hydrogen fuel cell and renewable energy project opens a new chapter in supplying energy to the Rockford community. While it is not as comprehensive as San Francisco’s attempt to recapture some control over its energy supply, it is a step in the right direction. The project fits well with Frank Schier’s consistent advocacy of renewable energy technologies as a means to revitalize the local economy. All elements of the airport project have been presented in previous articles on renewable energy in this newspaper. While we have had some direct involvement in the project, Bob O’Brien’s enthusiastic support of the project is refreshing and essential.

The initial planning grant is designed to sort out details of the potential project and identify funding sources needed to implement it. When the three technologies involved—solar cells, wind generators and fuel cells—are judged in terms of the timing of potential community impacts the following pattern emerges.

Producing electricity from the sun is a well-established technology that has been growing at an annual rate of around 30 percent. California leads the nation in installed capacity. Illinois is fourth with roughly two-thirds of the installed output located in Chicago. The city made a commitment to renewable energy and assisted Spire Solar Chicago in locating a solar electric assembly plant in the city

The type of solar installation considered at the Rockford Airport is produced by UniSolar Corporation of Michigan. PV cells are integrated into roofing material, which helps to lower the cost of the system. This approach is gaining acceptance for commercial applications with firms like Frito Lay and Coca-Cola in California. If commercial interests in this area begin to use this technology, more local energy dollars will stay in the community, and more roofers and electricians will have jobs installing them

The new wind generators targeted for use at the airport are unique as they do not use blades to capture the force of the wind, but rely on a design similar to the double helix pattern found in DNA. This design makes them suitable for rooftop applications. They work well under changing wind conditions and are intended to provide electricity for on-site use. If the machines become a commercial success, LJ Fabricators of Rockford will play a major role in their production. The generator was designed by Bill Becker, a professor at the University of Illinois—Circle Campus.

While the potential economic impact of fuel cells is substantial, the supporting technology remains expensive and needs further improvements to lower its cost. Two methods of generating hydrogen for the project will be demonstrated: stripping it from natural gas and releasing it from water using wind and solar electricity.

The airport project is a significant step toward establishing a new energy model in the Rockford area. The Winnebago County Board is considering ways to make the new Justice Center more energy efficient and to incorporate renewable energy sources. The Park District is also considering incorporating these technologies into the new facilities for the Discovery Center and the Burpee Museum.

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