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Wind power yet to power up on Seacoast

PORTSMOUTH – The wind energy movement for local residents doesn’t have much wind behind it.

Several Seacoast towns have ordinances that permit residential wind turbines, and on paper, it’s an idea worth mulling. It’s an opportunity to save money over the long haul while doing something environmentally friendly. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, enough power is produced in the country by wind turbines to provide electricity for 9.7 million homes and has been around for decades, so it’s not an unknown technology.

But with only a handful of exceptions, the ordinances and the state law that spawned them has not yielded returns. The reasons are myriad, but many people interviewed last week said a combination of startup costs and lack of viable land and wind speeds made it difficult for towns like Portsmouth, Greenland and Rye, none of which have seen residential applications.

Suzanne Sayer, a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power in Maine, has extensive experience working with wind turbines. She gave two reasons why it hasn’t caught on for residents.

“It’s not cost effective, and there’s no wind,” she said.

Characterizing herself as a proponent of wind power, she said winds in most areas, except right on the coast, are not strong enough or sustained enough for most residential wind turbines to be effective. Compounding the problem are ordinances that, in an attempt to minimize nuisance to neighbors or preserve historic areas, do not allow the turbines to be set high enough to capitalize on wind that does exist.

The high-profile case of the Kittery, Maine, wind turbine may serve as a cautionary tale. Sayer was involved with writing a grant proposal for that project before three of four companies contacted said its transfer station site would not produce enough wind. The turbine failed to produce more than a fraction of the promised energy and was disassembled and the town reimbursed.

“Turbines that don’t turn hurt the industry,” Sayer said. “If we learned to use it correctly, it can provide us energy, but we can’t have these little regulations that limit to 35 feet above the house or the treeline. The best place to put a wind turbine up would be some place when you went out there with a kite, you could fly it any day of the year.”

Attorney Tom Hildreth has wondered the same thing for a while now. In a recent Portsmouth Herald editorial, he mulled that despite passage of RSA 674:62-66 and subsequent local ordinances aimed at encouraging wind power, the potentially lengthy permitting and planning process for a turbine could be an obstacle for many people.

Like Sayer, he said there’s likely more than one factor in play. The attitude for some, he said, appears to be one of financial caution. “It’s good to be green, but if it costs me too much green, I can’t go there,” Hildreth said.

There are residential success stories for those who have taken the plunge. Gayle and Stephen Szydlo of Hampton Falls, who live seven miles inland near Route 88, installed a turbine from Rye-based WindGuys USA last summer. Gayle said the turbine is 52 feet high and benefits from an open field behind the home, and that during winter when the leaves have fallen off the trees, they get consistent wind from all four sides.

She estimated her family has seen up to a 45-percent reduction in their electric bill on the windiest months, and thanks to rebates and other funding, they’ve recouped two-thirds of the cost of the turbine, estimated to be less than $15,000.

“It’s worked out very well for us. We’re happy with the results,” Szydlo said, adding “July and August are always the quiet months, because there’s no wind.”

Seabrook-based Waterline Alternative Energies also lists the turbine at Seacoast Volkswagen in Greenland as a success story, and one of the projects Waterline has undertaken since getting into the wind business two years ago. Spokesman Jeffrey Haydock said location is a primary concern there. He said more people aren’t looking to wind turbines to offset their energy usage because the permitting process can be more difficult than solar, but also because solar is simply more feasible in “most,” but not all, cases. Quirks of geography, trees and other obstructions can prevent a wind turbine from functioning properly.

“It can work depending on one’s financial requirements and location, but overall we’re finding solar is more realistic – not true in all cases, but in most,” Haydock wrote in an e-mail interview.

That’s not to say it can’t be worth it, as Szydlo noted. Haydock said that having the means of generating your own electricity, even if it’s not the full amount you use, can help protect against unpredictable fluctuations in energy prices. The incentives and rebates available can help pay off the cost of the device much faster.

But still, in Rye, one of the towns with a wind turbine ordinance that Hildreth wrote about, Building Inspector Susan Labrie said a couple of residents expressed interest in putting up their own turbines, but nothing came to fruition.

Labrie suggested that while the idea of producing your own energy and helping the environment is enticing, there’s a different kind of green at play.

“I think it boils down to cost effectiveness,” Labrie said. “In today’s economy, people don’t have the opportunity to do that anymore.”