Neil McNeil catches a breeze

Whichever way the wind blows, a new wind turbine is spinning fresh ideas at Neil McNeil High School.

Neil McNeil High School teacher Joe Ferro shows the new wind turbine installed above the school's technology class this fall. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Neil McNeil High School teacher Joe Ferro shows the new wind turbine installed above the school’s technology class this fall.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Painted with a red-winged ‘N,’ the small turbine charges a mobile battery unit inside the school’s technology class.

Students can track the turbine’s output, use the battery for back-up power, even charge their phones.

“I was hoping to take all the students’ cell phones and leave them there for the period so they don’t get distracted,” said tech teacher Joe Ferro, breaking into a 60-watt smile. “Or they could drop them off at 9 o’clock, pick them up after school – the whole staff would love that.”

Now that the turbine is installed, Ferro has students thinking about the next step – adding a weather station.

It took a lot of custom work just to get the turbine fixed in place, Ferro said. He knows the next step won’t come without bugs to fix.

But that’s part of the fun.

“It’s like an R & D department,” said Ferro. “I’ll say, ‘Here’s the challenge today – there’s no right or wrong way to solve this problem, but solve it your way.’”

Before teaching, Ferro had a 26-year career as an engineer. He designed telecom equipment, including a phone device for a woman who was paralyzed from the neck down.

“She was an incredibly smart woman,” said Ferro. Besides personal calls, she quickly started using the device to do phone sales from her hospital bed.

Likewise, the new turbine system could be used in surprising ways.

So far, Ferro has suggested using the battery unit to power the school’s speaker system in a blackout. Down the road, he would like to see students find other ways to charge the battery – perhaps by turning an old workout bike into a generator.

But even now, Ferro said he and his students have learned a lot.

Designed to stand on a pole in an open field, the wind turbine shipped with four short stakes and a pair of guy wires – not enough to secure it above the tech class’ two-storey roof.

With help, Ferro made a sturdier base for the pole by burying a stacked pair of paint buckets filled with cement.

“We survived that wind-gust weekend we had about a month ago,” he said. “We had 100 km/h wind, so we’re very pleased with that.”

Waterproof cables, lightning wire, a “brake” plug that stops the turbine spinning, A/C-D/C converters – even though it’s a relatively simple, low-power turbine, Ferro said even he had a lot to learn. That should mean lots of good lessons for students, he said.

“For me, this is more of a hands-on thing that kids can actually work with, versus studying out of a textbook.”  Neil wind turbine-0719

But rather than stop with the classroom, Ferro is inviting anyone curious about the wind turbine, perhaps because they want to install one at their home or cottage, to visit the school for a tour.

“When you see them spinning, you don’t really know how the system works,” he said. “But when you get the bits and pieces, and put it all together, it’s really not that difficult.”

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