John and Joe Nicholson think the 55 acres of land they own in Portage Township is a great spot for a small wind farm.
The Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm eventually will put 90 windmills on ridgetops across northeastern Cambria County. The first phase of that project is up and running – within two miles of the Nicholson farm.
A handful of turbines about 60 feet tall could generate enough energy to power a home and allow for some electricity to be sold back to the power grid. The Nicholsons are on the lookout for state and federal grants to help fund their idea of a small wind farm.
The windmills in the Allegheny Ridge system are about 400 feet tall.
“We figured, we have this land we’re not doing anything with; maybe we can turn it into something,” John Nicholson said.
Increasing interest in such projects has prompted several Mainline municipalities to consider ordinances regulating on-lot wind turbines.
“It’s apparently a growing industry of some companies – a turbine to power a home, a small shop of some kind with any excess power sold back into the grid,” said C.J. Webb, an Ebensburg lawyer and solicitor for Portage Township and Cresson Borough.
Webb is telling his municipal clients that existing windmill ordinances will not cover what is called premises use wind turbine generators that are much shorter than commercial types and designed for the sole use of the homeowner.
While much is still emerging technology, Southwest Wind Power, a Flagstaff, Ariz.-based turbine manufacturer, has seen an explosion of interest in backyard turbines, company Vice President Andy Kruse said.
Five years ago, annual inquiries about the devices were a couple hundred, Kruse said. In the past year, he added, more than 30,000 inquiries have come from across the county.
“It’s the people that are really driving it,” Kruse said. “They hope to bring down their own costs, and they want to reduce that carbon footprint.”
The state Department of Environmental Protection selected Kruse’s company to provide 15 turbines as part of a pilot program aimed at municipalities, school districts and other nonprofit organizations.
“These are small, technically advanced windmills that can produce the energy for one home,” DEP spokesman Neil Weaver said.
About $200,000 in state money is being spent on windmills – demonstrating a commitment the governor has to wind and other forms of renewable energy, Weaver said.
Locally, the Somerset County Technology Center was awarded a 35-foot-tall turbine funded through the Pennsylvania Energy Department Authority.
“It’s been in operation for over a year. It’s actually hooked into the electric grid, and we’re using the electricity,” project coordinator Debra Davis said.
Another windmill was awarded to the Harmony Area School District in neighboring Clearfield County.
Significantly more funding for small community projects could be available if legislation is passed as part of the governor’s energy independence strategy, said Erik Foley, director of the Renewable Energy Center at St. Francis University in Loretto.
One role of the center is to provide wind meters to gauge energy potential at private and public sites. Six meters currently gather information at sites in Cambria, Somerset and Erie counties.
The Community Foundation For The Alleghenies, using the Penelec Sustainable Energy Fund, supports the St. Francis center because it is the way of the future, Executive Director Michael Kane said.
“The interest is here,” he said. “The cost of energy will go up considerably, and more people are going to be looking at reducing their outside energy costs.”
Wind power generators will look significantly different in the future, with some designed to be mounted on rooftops, Kane said.
Whatever they look like, Berlin Borough Manager Kerry Claycomb says he would love to see more of them at work in his community.
Claycomb said wind energy would go a long way toward providing power for Berlin’s municipal electric distribution system.
Berlin’s system is one of only 40 in the state, he said. Adding wind would be a way to diversify the power supply now purchased through American Municipal Power, an Ohio-based cooperative.
He estimates three or four commercial-sized turbines are needed to meet the needs of the community of 2,200 people.
“It would help stabilize the cost of our power,” Claycomb said. “I think it would be a good thing.”
By Kathy Mellott
19 August 2007
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