In July 2006, the state Department of Environmental Protection announced that Economy was one of the towns that would receive a small wind turbine to generate electricity for its municipal center to show the viability of wind power.
The state touted the turbine, which would be erected on a windswept Beaver County hill, saying that it would generate 1.8 kilowatts of power on an ongoing basis, enough to supply a typical residence.
It was to be installed and operational by October 2006.
The installation fell 11 months behind schedule, but the delay was not that big a deal; it was paid for by a DEP grant, and was expected to generate enough power to justify the $10,000 price tag in seven years.
That has proven to be optimistic, as well.
In four months of operation, Mr. Kunkle said, the turbine has generated 840 kilowatt-hours of electricity – enough to power a typical home for about a week.
So far, Mr. Kunkle said, it’s not entirely clear what the problem is, and the fact that the manufacturer is based in Arizona and the installer in Lycoming County has not helped. He said he recently got a phone message from a DEP representative asking how things were going, and had not yet decided exactly how to respond.
“I still think it’s a good thing,” he said, “and I really don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it has been frustrating.”
Mr. Kunkle said he thinks part of the problem is in computer software, which is supposed to shut down the turbine when there is a power surge on the electric grid or in high winds, both safeguards to protect it from damage.
The turbine seems to be shutting down more often than it should, and doesn’t seem to kick back on. Township employees end up shutting off the breaker that powers it, then turning it back on to reset it.
He said new software is supposed to be on its way, but has not yet arrived.
Mr. Kunkle also said he’d like to have some kind of forum to talk to the 14 other towns that got the turbines in hopes that others have faced and solved the problems Economy is having.
Still, he has hope that, with the kinks worked out, the turbine can do what it is supposed to do – cut the borough’s energy costs and show that wind power can make sense for residential use.
He said the turbine is quiet enough to go almost unnoticed, and he has seen no evidence of bird kills or other problems. And it’s weirdly attractive, with three scimitar-shaped blades atop a single pole.
“As part of the grant, we’re supposed to provide an educational aspect,” he said, and he definitely envisions bringing in school groups to talk about wind power. So far, though, township staffers have not been able to get the computer interface working, either, so they have little to show people to demonstrate the turbine’s function.
“This will be a good thing,” Mr. Kunkle said. “But we’re having some growing pains.”
By Brian David
10 January 2008
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