Looking to offset rising electricity bills, Marsha Vitow has a modern solution: installing Baltimore's first residential wind turbine on the roof of her Federal Hill rowhouse.
It's a logical move in a city whose mayor has pushed extra tree plantings, recycling and other issues on a "cleaner, greener" agenda, but Vitow has run into some old-fashioned problems. Decades-old zoning laws don't account for a wind turbine, and some of her neighbors say the eight-foot-tall contraption will hurt their rooftop views and their property values.
"This is about doing something good. There are always a few people afraid of change," said Vitow, who is scheduled to appear before the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals today for a variance to build above the 35-foot residential height limit. City officials, who routinely approve roof decks, antennas and additions, can't predict how it will go.
Residents of other cities, including Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, have successfully made the case for wind turbines. Still, there are only a handful of turbines because urban areas tend to have obstacles to the wind, according to Ron Stimmel, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association.
Generally, turbines work best when they are 30 feet above everything else and have few barriers within 500 feet, which isn't possible for a city rowhouse. But Stimmel said it's possible to power a city house with turbines now available, and the technology is evolving fast.
"There is a lot of public interest in such turbines, and they are getting approved," said Stimmel. "Still, I don't suspect it will be a huge trend in the cities. More people will opt for solar panels or buying renewable energy from the power company."
Vitow worked in building management for 30 years and introduced many green features to her facilities. She's tried to do the same at home. With water all around her house, she thought a turbine was a "no-brainer," even if no one is sure how much power can be generated.
Vitow's contractor, Todd Jones, was surprised to learn someone in Baltimore wanted a wind turbine. Jones, a project manager for Green Solutions of Maryland, mostly works in Western Maryland. But when he looked at wind maps and average wind speeds, and went on the roof near the Inner Harbor, it appeared to be sufficiently windy to generate a couple hundred kilowatt hours of energy a month - the average homeowner uses between 1,000 and 2,000.
That means her whole bill won't get offset and it will take a while for Vitow to recoup the thousands of dollars she would likely spend on installation. She plans on a vertical axis turbine, with blades about 6 feet long that stand straight up and whirl around an 8-foot pole and base like a merry-go-round. It will spin up to 50 mph, though it will make little noise.
While the city grapples with the issue, turbines are getting more mainstream. More than 10,000 people around the country bought wind systems last year, in part because of federal and state incentives.
The Maryland Energy Administration began accepting grant applications from residents for wind turbines in late 2007 under its Windswept program. The state provides up to $10,000 depending on the size of the turbine. Christina Twomey, an agency spokeswoman, said no one has applied in Baltimore or its closest counties. So far, 11 applications have been approved in Carroll and Allegheny counties and on the Eastern Shore, and another 21 applications have been made so far this fiscal year.
Baltimore officials' research shows that homeowners in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties have sought permission for turbines but no decisions have been made.
Kenlynn K. Schroeder, who lives in Federal Hill and owns Lucinda Gallery, has been collecting names on a petition in support of Vitow's turbine because, she says, "it's the wave of the future." There are about 200 signatures, with half from people living in the neighborhood.
"We have roof decks here, and you could argue they aren't in keeping with the historic neighborhood," she said. "Can't we make the same exception for a wind turbine? Our BGE bills just keep going up. We should have choices other than to buy our energy from one company. And this is green. If this works, others will do it."
But one of Vitow's neighbors with a roof deck is concerned about the turbine being so close. Her other neighbor, Patrice C. Davidson, said that as a Realtor she generally sees "green" as a plus, but believes a 300-pound turbine will be too big for a rooftop, unsafe on a home more than a century old and unsightly. That could mean a drop in property values. She suggests solar panels.
"Ms. Vitow has not considered the negatives of her proposed idea, or the ramifications to her neighbors," Davidson said. "Baltimore is a big city with a small-town feel. It's important to maintain that feel as we grow green in the coming years."