BULLHEAD CITY – Two wind turbines stand on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River, their propellers whirling as they harvest energy from a relentless desert breeze.
Jill and Larry Endline generate electricity with the turbines to power their nearby house, and they see it as a smart economic and environmental investment.
The 33-foot-tall metal structures also have generated quite a bluster at Bullhead City’s municipal headquarters, where council members fret about the prospect of turbines popping up on properties throughout the community.
So, the elected leaders passed a law, and the Endlines decided to fight City Hall.
“Yeah, it’s Bullhead City,” Larry says with emphasis. “They hit the wrong guy. I’ve got just enough time, just enough money, and I’m just bullheaded enough to fight it out.”
As American homeowners look for alternative energy in the face of rising fuel prices and global warming, similar conflicts have sprouted in other places around the nation.
In Long Beach, N.J., homeowner Mike Mercurio got sued by neighbors for erecting a wind turbine, then had to fend off commissioners who wanted a complete ban on turbines because of safety issues.
An inn owner in Kidder Township, Pa., urged approval of his turbines, declaring that they “aren’t the devil’s equipment.” Similar feuds have erupted in Massachusetts, North Carolina and New York.
“Zoning continues to be a huge weight around the industry’s neck,” concedes Ron Stimmel of the American Wind Energy Association, which represents turbine makers, vendors and owners. “Permitting is a huge barrier.”
Commercial-power generation from turbines is a burgeoning industry. The association says electrical output from big wind collectors rose 45 percent in 2007 alone, pumping out enough electricity to serve 4.5 million homes.
Just this month, Mohave County announced plans to power a public park with turbines. The Navajo Nation is developing a giant wind-turbine farm near Gray Mountain. Other major projects are planned across the state and nation.
By comparison, residential turbines remain a fledgling market, with the estimated 4,000 of them nationwide having a negligible impact on the overall power grid.
Still, says Amanda Ormond, a renewable-energy consultant and leader at the non-profit Arizona Wind Working Group, home turbines represent a wave of the future. “The market is pretty much untapped, but there’s a tremendous amount of potential,” she says.
Legislative mandates and subsidy programs are creating momentum, making wind power more affordable for the little guy, Ormond says. Earlier this month, the Arizona Corporation Commission adopted a rule requiring public utilities in the state to use renewable energy for 15 percent of their retail output by 2025.
In response, Arizona Public Service Co. and other firms have instituted rebate and incentive programs to subsidize the cost of residential wind-turbine ownership.
State of mind-set
Arizona is home to the world’s largest manufacturer of residential turbines. Flagstaff-based Southwest Windpower Inc., founded 20 years ago, reports that its annual revenues soared by 70 percent last year.
“We’re seeing a mind-set change,” says Andy Kruse, co-founder and executive vice president. “It’s not just environmental. It’s energy security and energy prices. . . . In 1998, this industry almost didn’t exist. Now, it’s up to a billion dollars.”
Southwest Windpower, which made the Endlines’ turbines, has a team dedicated to solving neighborhood feuds and zoning problems. Kruse downplays the issue, though, and scoffs at the image of wind-turbine forests sprouting in urban areas.
Residential models such as the 33-foot-tall Skystream require average wind speeds of 12 mph, he explains, so Phoenix and Tucson are not viable markets. And because turbines cannot function well with buildings nearby, they will remain a rural phenomenon.
On the other hand, Kruse describes northern Arizona’s wind-swept expanses as ideal. Even where the parcels are only 1 acre, he insists, neighbors seldom complain about noise or aesthetics.
“We manage to get these things installed in schools and public institutions around the country,” he says. “It hasn’t been there before, so people are hesitant. But, once they see it, they say, ‘Oh, that’s what you mean.’ ”
‘Wanted to go green’
Larry Endline, a general contractor, says he envisioned dual benefits from wind energy while building a dream home on 3½ acres near the edge of Bullhead City. “It saves money, and it’s environmental. . . . We wanted to go green.”
Endline says municipal planners assured him in advance that getting a permit would not be a problem because Bullhead City had no wind-turbine ordinance. So, he invested $18,400 on a pair of turbines, saving about $6,000 by doing much of the work himself.
The turbines, which are linked to the electrical grid, provide roughly one-quarter of his energy needs. Endline also put in a solar tracker with panels costing $22,600, and he plans more solar gear. Counting rebates and credits, he expects to recoup his investment within a decade.
After the first turbine was installed, however, Endline received a violation notice claiming he needed to get permits or face a “criminal complaint.” Although the code contains no rules for wind turbines, city officials argued that if zoning ordinances applied only to specifically identified structures, people could ruin neighborhoods by building all kinds of monstrosities without regulation.
Mayor Jack Hakim says he and others were worried about blocked views, blight, safety hazards, noise pollution and neighborhood bickering. Because no other city in Arizona had a wind-turbine ordinance, Hakim adds, they had to make one up. The result, after a lot of debate, was a measure requiring at least 1 acre of land for a turbine and allowing no more than one per parcel.
The Endlines, who previously had installed their second turbine, were out of conformance. The city insisted they pay $440 for a special-use permit. Larry says he was outraged by the political “babble” but even more upset because the new code blocks many others from using wind energy.
“It’s not that we can’t afford it,” he says. “It’s the principle for us and everyone else. . . . You’re trying to help the environment.”
Finally, last week, the Endlines agreed to seek a permit and a fee waiver as a compromise. Hakim says he is optimistic their application will be approved, adding, “I know we’re going to resolve this.”
At the Endlines’ house, turbine blades swirl with a soft, sirenlike noise that is inaudible from the property line.
“They’re not an eyesore,” Endline insists. “They’re not noisy. They’re kind of a joy to watch.”
by Dennis Wagner
The Arizona Republic
29 April 2008