Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Is county ripe for residential wind power?

Blaine leaders indicate interest in small-scale wind power generation

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County Commissioners indicated a willingness Tuesday to consider an amendment to county zoning that would allow landowners to erect residential-scale wind turbines.

That is as long as limitations are put in place regarding safety, aesthetics and other wind-turbine-related zoning issues, the commissioners seemed to agree.

"I do support the idea," Commissioner Larry Schoen said.

Schoen said he could justify the zoning change as part of the county's ongoing work to develop a comprehensive climate protection plan for the county.

He said he already knows of residents interested in installing wind turbines on their properties to help reduce their reliance on power generated elsewhere. Unlike some other Idaho counties, especially those along the windy Snake River Plain, Blaine County is perhaps not as ripe for utility-scale wind projects, he said.

"Most of what we're going to see is residential scale," he said.

The commissioners' consideration residential wind generation followed a long-winded discussion last Thursday during a joint meeting with the Planning and Zoning Commission. The discussion was led by Andy Kruse, co-founder of Southwest Windpower, an Arizona corporation.

Seeing a need for small, reliable battery-charging wind generators to complement solar energy photovoltaics in supplying energy to rural areas of the world, Kruse and David Calley established Southwest Windpower in 1987. The first product the company developed was a 300-watt wind generator called the Windseeker, the company's Web site states. The product was a simple design made from a modified Ford alternator.

During his discussion, Kruse told the P&Z and county commissioners about the company's newest wind turbine, the Skystream 3.7. He said the triple-blade wind turbine can generate between 40 percent and 100 percent of a household or small business's needs.

He said the turbine alone costs about $5,400. With the permitting required to install it as well as installation, the overall cost of the turbine can run as high as $14,000, he said.

Kruse told the commissioners that his company's turbines have generated clean energy in a variety of locations throughout the world, many of them quite remote. He said one of his turbines has even been installed at the residence of former President George H.W. Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine.

"They provide energy in many, many places," he said.

Kruse said residential-scale wind turbines are generally installed to supplement a home's energy needs.

The interest in personal wind generation is especially timely, he said, because of the desire many have to reduce the United States' dependence on foreign energy sources. He contended that reducing U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources is an issue of national security.

Kruse said today's modern wind turbines are quieter and far more reliable than their predecessors.

"You just put it in your backyard and forget about it," he said.

He said rising energy costs are causing homeowners to ask "how can I do something about this."

Of course, one thing is necessary to make personal wind generation work: adequate wind.

Kruse said personal wind generation generally requires a stable supply of 10- to 12-mile-per-hour wind. He said the Wood River Valley's diverse topography of undulating ridges and draws means the potential for generating wind will vary from place to place.

And, he said, wind turbines must be placed at least 25 to 30 feet above surrounding objects to operate efficiently.

"The taller you (place) the tower, the more energy you get," he said.

Positioned too close to objects on the landscape places wind turbines in what wind experts call "dirty wind," Kruse said.

"It's going to be a very expensive lawn ornament," he said.

As "green" or environmentally-friendly as they may be, residential wind turbines need to be installed in a way that doesn't annoy nearby neighbors due to their potentially unsightly presence on a landscape, the commissioners said. And this is where new zoning regulations will apparently come into play.

In the end, the commissioners agreed to give the P&Z and planning staff first crack at the issue.

"I think we need feedback from our Planning and Zoning director," Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael said.

She acknowledged that the planning department has many other priorities it also needs to work on.

"An ordinance like this would take a lot of work," she said.

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