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Producing Winds of Change
As power prices rise, windmills are one way to decrease costs
Pamela J. Podger, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 27, 2001, ©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
With windmills rising on Bay Area ridges and ranches, Don Quixote couldn't be far behind.
But the modern-day conquistadors who live where the winds blow strong are looking only to set their energy bill to rights. In harnessing the wind, they're hoping to generate enough electricity to keep the lights and heat on without too much help from California's creaking power grid.
When the blades are spinning like crazy, these folks can afford an almost smug outlook on the power fiasco. "When you have a wind generator, it gives you a different sense when the wind is blowing. Then it's a great day," said Penngrove resident Craig Bartosch, whose family's 3,000-watt, 35-foot wind turbine started humming last month. "It's a windfall that we have a system in place while everything is going completely nuts in the energy scene."
The resurgence of interest in wind energy, which was touted as a solution during the '70s energy crunch, is fanned by several factors -- including the precipitous rise in utility bills and a decline in the costs of such systems since a generation ago.
The companies that manufacture small wind turbines -- companies like Bergey Windpower, Southwest Windpower and Wind Turbine Industries -- have been in business now for a couple of decades, and all are reporting a huge increase in sales from California customers this year.
"We've just had an explosion of sales in California," said Mike Bergey, president of Bergey Windpower, based in Norman, Okla. "They feel we're like a modern-day Robin Hood," said Darryl J. Conklin of Renewable Technologies in Sutter Creek in Amador County, who sells and installs windmills.
Most windmill owners are still hooked up to the grid, but on windy days their turbines give them autonomy. People who live near the coastal ranges or other strong wind alleys can "bank" the excess power they generate, then draw on the system at other times almost for free. At least one Contra Costa County family has found that the steady winds on their 10-acre farm make them self- sufficient when it comes to energy.
"I don't have utility bills anymore. I'm pushing power back into the grid," said Dr. Steve Mosby, whose family has had their system near Brentwood since June. "The wind comes up in the afternoon, just about the time you need the air conditioning in the summer, so the meter is stalled out. That means that windmill is making enough power to run our air conditioning."
Another benefit is a state rebate program that pays for about half of the equipment. That means the cost of a typical $32,000 system, if approved by the California Energy Commission, drops to about $16,000. Sanford Miller of the state Energy Commission said that 38 rebates had been completed since 1998 -- and that about 56 recent applications were pending.
"This is a good time for people to consider putting in their own energy systems because of the tax credits, rebates and the higher utility bills," Miller said. "There are all of the ingredients for people to take the plunge."
One San Bernardino-area general contractor said pickup trucks, sedans, sports utility vehicles and Cadillacs bounced up to his high desert home, on the north side of Cajon Pass, after he raised his 65-foot windmill. The unexpected rush of inquiries convinced Joe Guasti that he should become a dealer himself.
"I put up my tower on Dec. 27, and almost immediately, people driving by started pulling up my dirt driveway," Guasti said. "I had five customers in a few days. Now, I've got 28 orders pending before the California Energy Commission for the rebates."
But the systems aren't for everyone.
Most of the main wind turbine manufacturers say customers need at least one acre of land. So far, the biggest obstacle for small, private windmills is a common 35-foot height restriction in some parts of Northern California, which means a zoning variance must be secured.
"Height restrictions are problematic with wind energy, as trees and buildings can be obstructions," said Sean Hickey of Southwest Windpower in Flagstaff, Ariz. "You need to have a clear wind path."
Smaller, 30-foot towers can get around the restrictions, but taller towers are more efficient and generate more energy. For example, a smaller, 3,000- watt system provides enough energy for thirty 100-watt lightbulbs. By contrast, the commercial systems at Altamont Pass make about 500 kilowatts and more.
Jeff Oldham, a windmill dealer in Ukiah, said the phones at his company, Real Goods, had been going "totally berserk" in the past few months.
He estimated that in ideal circumstances, where someone has an average wind speed of 10 to 12 mph, a windmill could slash about $50 to $200 monthly. But even then, that means that it would take five to 10 years before the savings in the electric bill would have paid for the system.
V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, a nonprofit in Sacramento, said the past paradigm -- where centralized utilities were the dominant players -- was shifting to decentralized, privately owned power sources. "The grid needs to become a two-way street," White said. "In some way, citizens may be ahead of the experts because of their willingness to explore clean generators."
Mark Pasternak and Michael Percy, who live on neighboring ranches in west Marin County, say they are exploring windmills for their lands on the hills above Nicasio. Both men had smaller-wattage wind turbines in the 1970s and say the lower costs of the improved technology could provide fossil-free power for their homes and ranch operations.
"It is real gratifying to watch," Percy said. "On a windy day, you go down and look at your needle and think, 'I got all that electricity for nothing.' " Pasternak said he was off the grid until the 1980s, when he needed more power to irrigate his vineyards.
"My original windmill produced way more energy than anticipated. I've got a leg up because I've done this before," Pasternak said. "I'm investigating a hybrid system with wind, photovoltaics and hydropower. Ultimately, the goal is to be as self-sufficient as possible."
Country dwellers also have some concerns that don't affect city folk. Many of them depend on well water and rely on electricity to pump that water. For them, a loss in power means no water. "We're concerned about the rolling blackouts," said Steve Nelson, who lives just outside Tracy. "I don't think it is a one-time phenomenon and will continue with California's growth."
Nelson and his wife, Kathy, can stand in the front yard of their 3,100- square-foot home and watch the Altamont wind farms. Those whirring blades sparked the idea for buying a windmill as their energy bills climbed from $401 in December to $565 in January. They've ordered a system with a 100-foot tower, which is expected to arrive by mid-March.
"This way, if it happens, we'll still have power and will be self- sufficient," Nelson said. Paul Gipe, an author and lecturer on wind energy who lives in Tehachapi in Kern County, points out that the wind is free. With electricity costs rising, he said, investing in a windmill makes sense.
"If you are in a place that has wind, you can hardly afford not to do it," Gipe said. "But the wind can be extremely annoying for anyone who has ever lived with it. The wind is something people curse at, but now they can make use of it."
E-mail Pamela J. Podger at email@example.com.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A15
-- Swissrose (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 27, 2001