Since the day an Opal Street resident recently constructed a wind turbine in his backyard, North Ridgeville officials have been learning as much as they can about wind power.
The Building and Lands Committee met July 18 with John Butkowski, an engineer working in the field of advanced energy, to discuss alternative energy. He has been involved with energy storage for several years and sits on the board of directors for an international electricity storage association, which represents multiple countries.
Butkowski presented the committee with a wind map detailing wind strengths across Ohio. The document indicated winds are available in Ohio at 150 feet. He said areas in North Ridgeville have average wind speeds of anywhere from 0 to 14 mph at that height.
“If you have someone that’s going to put a wind turbine up that’s about 30 feet (tall), unless they get a tremendous amount of wind, they’re not going to generate any power,” Butkowski said. “You’d need about 18 mph of wind to generate 400 watts. Four hundred watts is the equivalent of ten 40-watt lightbulbs.”
Reviewing the Opal Street wind turbine specifications, he said the turbine will generate 4,000 watts at winds of 12 mph, and he predicted the Opal Street homeowner will not see a return on his investment anytime soon because of an inability to store energy.
“If he expended $30,000 and he expects to get a payback in five years, it’s not going to happen,” Butkowski said.
Safety Service Director Jeff Armbruster asked if the Opal Street residence will still present a reduced demand on the utility provider.
“His reliance on the electric company could be less because he’ll be using less electricity,” Butkowski replied, pointing out power will be put back onto the homeowner’s grid if it isn’t being used, that meters will run backward.
In terms of drafting wind turbine legislation, Mayor Dave Gillock emphasized whether the machinery generates satisfactory power is not the issue at hand.
“That’s beside the point,” he said. “If (the homeowner) wants to put it up, he can put it up.”
Utility companies are concerned about the amount of solar and wind energies generated in cities because people will feed power back onto the grid in order to make money, Butkowski said.
“What happens is when these (turbines) start, they … create a big slug of power, which can cause surges,” he said. “These surges can cause disturbances on power lines.”
Although Butkowski said homeowners might be able to generate some power on a windy day, the question remains how homeowners will store their power, if at all. Most wind is generated at night when homeowners don’t typically need the power, he added, so some people store their power in batteries.
“Lead acid batteries, when they’re being charged, give off hydrogen gas,” Butkowski explained. “You’re not going to get by with one or two batteries. You’re going to need a bank of batteries. You have to make sure if they are using lead acid batteries they have proper ventilation. Otherwise, there could be a problem.”
Energy storage, including lithium ion batteries (which are the energy industry’s battery of choice), was one area Butkowski advised should be considered when wind turbine legislation is drafted.
“If there is a fire in a house, lithium ion batteries have a lot of power built into them,” he said. “They’re basically a third of the weight of a lead acid battery, but they pack four to five times the power, which means you could have a bomb.”
Wind turbines generate direct current electricity, which must be converted to alternating current by use of an inverter.
“The inverters are areas most people don’t have a clue about,” Butkowski said, “so it’s kind of ‘buyer beware’ at this point.”
He discussed some typical turbine problems, such as towers possibly obstructing the view of neighbors, failing towers due to inadequate design considerations and safety issues. Guide wires could also cause problems, he said, and some cities do not allow guide wires on a tower.
Blade icing is sometimes a concern during the winter months, Butkowski said, because blades turn slowly and ice can fly when the blades pick up speed. He noted there are technologies available to prevent this. Another thing to consider is turbine brake systems.
“If the wind gets too fast, you want to stop the turbine,” he said.
Ward 3 Councilman Dick Jaenke questioned which guidelines would need to be established for building inspectors. Butkowski recommended cities keep in touch with utility companies whenever a wind turbine is built, especially if the homeowner wants to tie into the power grid. He said city officials don’t need to become experts, but they need to learn as much as they can about alternative energy.
“They’ve got to be educated,” Butkowski said of building inspectors. “All of these are new technologies that people need to learn about. The building department will need to learn more about new technology because … it’s here.”
Another concern that was raised at the July 18 meeting dealt with consumers being scammed by smooth-talking salesmen. Bob Olesen, chairman of the Building and Lands Committee, questioned if the federal government has any consumer protections in place regarding wind turbines. Butkowski said there isn’t currently much in the books.
“There may be unwary buyers in the city wanting to go into this, and that bothers me,” Olesen said. “Putting out this kind of investment and not getting much of a return is an issue. We aren’t against green energy, but we still want to protect the residents from some fast talker that’s promising something that can’t be delivered.”