The gusts of controversy are blowing not over residential windmills themselves, but over fees local governments might want to charge homeowners who install them.
As municipalities in the Cambria-Somerset region begin to adopt residential windmill ordinances, permit fees and annual fees are being included.
In some cases, elected officials are taking heat for wanting to charge anything at all.
In other cases, proposed annual charges appear as though local governments want to cash in on new energy sources.
In Portage, Jackson and Cambria townships at least, the truth is somewhere in between.
To install an industrial-sized wind turbine, the permit fee is $1,500 per megawatt of electricity produced. For a residential system, called “Premises-Use Wind Turbine Generators,” the permit fee is $500.
For that fee, township employees make certain that setback requirements and height requirements are met, as with any other new installation or building or road for which a permit is required.
Township officials defend the permit fees, saying that they would bear responsibility if a neighbor’s lot was intruded upon or if there were safety issues in the installation.
Beyond that, annual fees would depend on whether a system produced more electricity than a household requires, and whether that excess went on what’s known as “the utility grid” and the homeowner is paid for it.
But selling any excess power produced by a windmill is not simple.
These are the steps required by the Pennsylvania Utility Commission:
• Customers must contact local government agencies to verify windmill ordinances, and also contact the local utility company to request a site visit to determine if an interconnection is feasible.
• The utility company, after a visit, provides an estimate of feasibility, cost and engineering requirements.
• The utility must approve any interconnection, and the windmill must be permitted by the local government.
• Called “net metering,” small wind projects must be compensated for excess power generation at full retail value, but the Public Utility Commission is in the process of finalizing the definition of “full retail value,” said spokeswoman Denise DiNunzio.
At the local level, Portage and Jackson townships have passed Premises-Use Wind Turbine ordinances, but Cambria plans to hold a workshop before voting on its proposed ordinance.
Too many questions are as yet unanswered, supervisors say.
No one has applied yet to install a small turbine system in any of the three townships.
Residential windmills: A primer
Residential windmills are not common in Cambria and Somerset counties, but jurisdictions including Portage, Jackson and Cambria townships are passing ordinances in anticipation of expanding consumer interest.
• Restrictions: Examples of limitations in loal ordinances include 100-foot setback from property line, and height restrictions of 75 to 100 feet.
• Practicality: Factors that need to be in place for someone to consider a private windmill include consistent wind flow averaging at least 10 miles per hour (Pennsylvania is mostly above this, but consistency varies), preferably at least one acre in a rural area, and electric bills of $150 or more per month.
• Sample prices: Cheapest – Target sells a tiny, 400-watt generator for $599 to run a pump or some home appliances or a small boat. Middle – Doing the work themselves, a $13,000 turbine reduced an Illinois couple’s electric bills from $90 to $10. Expensive – A $46,000 turbine in California powers an 1,800-square-foot house, and California paid the owner a $21,000 rebate. Installation costs are separate.
• Pennsylvania programs: Four bills to provide incentives for alternate energy – including wind systems await – action by the state Senate.
• National picture: Last year, about 7,000 small wind turbines – those with a capacity of up to 100 kilowatts, or enough to power a large school – were purchased in the United States. Sales will reach 10,000 this year.
• Hands-on learning: Prince Gallitzin State Park has a 120-foot-tall turbine that powers the park office and promotes alternative energy.
On the Web: American Wind Energy Association, www.awea.org. St. Francis University, Renewable Energy Center, www.francis.edu.
By Susan Evans
31 May 2008
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