San Francisco may encourage wind and solar energy use equally, but the number of solar panel installations has doubled to more than 2,000 since a citywide incentive was drawn up 2 1/2 years ago. Meanwhile, the number of wind turbines remains in the single digits.
“Wind turbines are less common right now in San Francisco because they’re a little more unpredictable,” said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the city’s Public Utilities Commission. “But in the right location, they can be a steady and reliable source of renewable power.”
Nathan Miller learned the hard way that location, aesthetics and neighborhood support are key to using wind power, and his situation highlights the difficulty of trying to harness wind energy in a densely populated city.
The 52-year-old has lived at his Miraloma Park home for seven years and wanted to install a 35-foot wind turbine with three 6-foot blades to save $35 out of his $100 monthly energy bill.
His home sits in the fog belt and gets more wind than sun, so he thought the turbine made sense.
“I thought wind power was a good idea to reduce my carbon footprint,” he said. “And it was actually lower-cost for me than solar installations.”
Miller estimates that after rebates, it would have cost him $10,000 to install the turbine compared with $20,000 for solar panels.
He planned to put the turbine on his front lawn, and Adrian Putra, a planner with the Planning Department, said his application met the proper design guidelines and was headed for approval.
And then neighbors stepped in.
Members of the Miraloma Park Improvement Club like Karen Wood saw it not only as an eyesore but also as “an intrusion” to the architectural qualities residents have worked to preserve over the decades.
“This would look like a giant machine plopped down in the middle of the homes,” Wood said.
His plans also drew resistance from the West of Twin Peaks Central Council, and the groups blocked the turbine from being approved by department staff by filing a discretionary review. Now, it must be approved by the Planning Commission.
To move forward, Miller has to submit a written response to the discretionary review and provide a 3-D model. But all of the opposition is giving him second thoughts.
“I’m caught in this thing where I’m either going to be this scapegoat figure or prophet of the future, and I’m not sure I want to be in either position,” Miller said.
While Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Urban Wind Power Task Force calls on city departments to “make every effort to advance wind power generation by incorporating wind turbines into the design of existing and new city facilities whenever and wherever possible,” that may be easier said than done.
Currently, only nine wind turbines are installed in the city – five in residential properties, two on a commercial property in Bayview, one at the Randall Museum and one at the San Francisco Zoo, said Johanna Partin, the mayor’s director of Climate Protection Initiatives.
The Department of the Environment is working to conduct a citywide 3-D wind tunnel modeling study to provide more accurate wind resource estimates and identify the best areas of the city for wind turbines.
This type of resource could make the process easier – and more appealing – to homeowners like Miller.
That could be helpful, but Tom Beaty, vice president of construction for Sustainable Power Systems, a wind turbine dealer, hints at another problem.
He said his company does not plan to serve more San Francisco clients because of the permitting problems that have precipitated from Miller’s case and others like it.
But the debate is as much about science as it is about aesthetics.
“Miller’s situation is a test case for whether San Francisco is ready to promote wind power or not,” said Joshua Arce, executive director of Brightline Defense Project, an environmental justice organization based in San Francisco. “I think we walk a fine line when we apply a lens of aesthetics to renewable energy.”
Todd Pelman, CEO of Blue Green Pacific, a manufacturer of a different type of wind turbine, said he is “absolutely for the proliferation of the technology” but doesn’t think a turbine model has been created yet that is suitable for neighborhoods.
Sharing this view is Michael Deneui, a Forest Hill Extension resident who lives a half mile from Miller. He installed the same type of turbine Miller proposed in his back yard in 2008. Deneui said he shut it off because it was only producing a tenth of the energy he expected, and neighbors complained about the noise and strobe light effects.
“I’d be more than willing to sell (Miller) my turbine for a dollar,” Deneui said. “I’m looking to get rid of the thing.”
For now, Miller said he’s put his plans on hold.
“I’m trying to figure out some other way to turn the tide,” he said. “I need to be influential in a way that doesn’t include everyone being pissed off by me.”