Electricity coming out of the air

Power costs have people looking into individual wind energy systems

May 25, 2008|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Relaxing with his feet propped up in his enclosed patio, Eastern Shore waterman Paul Abey hears chirping martins and lapping bay waves. He also hears a low-pitched whir.

"It's a good sound," Abey said of the hum coming from blades spinning atop a 45-foot tower on the edge of his front lawn.

"I've cussed the wind all my life," the Green Point crabber added, "but now I don't mind."

That's because he knows that, with every swish of his windmill, he's saving money.

His step away from traditional power sources reflects an increasing interest nationwide in what are known as small wind energy systems. As energy prices and environmental concerns mount, more people are testing the breeze.

Most counties in the region don't address wind turbines, but Carroll County tweaked its zoning ordinance earlier this month to allow residents to install the systems. And the state has begun offering grants to help people pay for them.

"Wind power is one of the largest growing alternative energy sources at the moment," said Hali Kilbourne, visiting assistant professor of environmental policy and science at McDaniel College in Westminster. "It's got one of the best energy returns on investments."

The industry has felt the interest in wind, with nearly 15 percent growth in sales for homes, farms or businesses last year, said Ron Stimmel, a small-wind advocate with the American Wind Energy Association.

For Abey and his wife, Ann, the decision to buy a windmill was about economics.

"We have quite an electric bill," Abey said, pointing out the large, shed-like cooler he uses to store soft crabs. "In this day and time, I think we're all looking for an alternative to everything."

Beyond a desire to circumvent rising energy bills, people turn to wind because of a desire to "go green," said Ian Baring-Gould, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Others simply want to take control of their own energy, he said, and not be subject to the variable charges associated with natural gas.

"If I can put in my own power source ... I know what those costs are, and I define those," Baring-Gould said. "It's a hedge against what the utilities are doing."

The key to building that hedge lies in where the wind blows - the stronger, the better. Stimmel said 12 miles per hour is the typical speed required for the turbines to work. Battery storage - or the local power grid - can supply electricity when there is no wind spinning the blades, he said.

High upfront cost is generally the principal barrier, Stimmel said: The expense to install a windmill can range from $12,000 to $55,000. Several states offer incentives - tax and grant programs - to help.

Last fall, the Maryland Energy Administration launched a Windswept Grant Program for small wind energy projects. The pilot was spurred by the rising number of requests for assessments, said Crissy Godfrey, wind program manager for the administration.

"It's been very popular," Godfrey said of the grant. As of December, she said, there were about two dozen wind projects in Maryland, most on residential properties, the majority on the Eastern Shore.

Tim Fluharty, who owns the Tilghman-based Fluharty's Electric, has put up eight windmills - including Abey's - on the Eastern Shore, and has several dozen more proposals out from interested individuals, he said.

Fluharty installed his first about a year ago at the company vice president's house, to pique curiosity.

"We've got a lot people interested," he said, adding that he tries to overcome the "learning curve" the windmill concept usually presents by talking to people about them.

Wind users connected to the power grid can benefit by building up credits for surplus energy they produce, a supply they can fall back on when needed, Godfrey said. They can also sell power back to utilities, Godfrey and Baring-Gould said, although they don't necessarily get the same value.

The systems are nothing like the 40-story structures proposed for wind farm projects in Western Maryland and off the coast of Ocean City.

To account for changing times, many counties throughout the nation are revamping their older zoning laws, Baring-Gould said.

Earlier this month, the Carroll County commissioners approved a zoning ordinance amendment that allows property owners to install up to two "small wind energy systems," each consisting of one tower not to exceed 150 feet in height.

The amendment was the culmination of a process that began with several residents' inquiries at the end of last year, county officials said.

Mary Bowman is one of several people in the county ready to forge ahead with wind power. The Eldersburg resident has seen her monthly electric bill soar to about $425, almost three times the amount she used to pay - even while attempting to cut back on energy use by flipping on ceiling fans and reminding her children to turn off lights.

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