Abilenians could have more opportunities to install personal windmills to generate electricity for their businesses, if the city follows through with plans it initiated.
On Monday the Planning & Zoning Commission approved an ordinance to amend the city’s Land Development Code and change the regulations for where wind energy converters – wind turbines used to generate electricity for single buildings – can be installed within city limits.
The issue will go before the Abilene City Council, with a public hearing likely in January.
The council charged city staff and the P&Z with drafting an ordinance that would allow more people to install the windmills, P&Z Chairman Tim McClarty iterated through the four months the commission has addressed the issue.
The proposed changes would limit windmills to nonresidential areas and limit tower heights to 65 feet on areas of 5 acres or less and 100 feet on areas of more than 5 acres. Additionally the amendment proposes windmills must be set back at least 105 percent of their height from the nearest habitable building.
If a resident wants to put up a tower that doesn’t satiate a litany of other requirements – including a certification from the Small Wind Certification Council showing is relatively quiet, has mechanical brakes, is out of a flood or drainage zone, among others – the resident can seek an exception from the city’s Board of Adjustment.
The current system requires potential builders to pay a $1,500 fee to apply for a permit, and they must seek approval from the P&Z and the council, which takes at least two months, said Ed McRoy, assistant director of planning and development services.
The proposed regulations would allow some towers “by right,” meaning that if all requirements are met, a resident simply could take out a building permit and put up a tower.
City officials couldn’t say exactly how many wind energy converters currently are in Abilene – a sign that the current, un-permitted process doesn’t make for good record-keeping – but best guesses are between 20 and 30.
Former city zoning ordinances didn’t address windmills at all, McRoy said. The Land Development Code, which last was approved and amended in 2010, recognized windmills as a special use, but applied tight restrictions on their placement.
Those restrictions, such as a required setback of 200 percent of a tower’s height from a building and 150 percent of a tower’s height from an adjacent property line, mean that few properties in Abilene can meet the standards, he said.
City staff performed a computer-assisted analysis to find if the proposed ordinance would accomplish the council’s directive to allow more individual windmills in Abilene.
Their rough estimates showed the current regulations allow windmills on about 2 percent of the parcels in Abilene while the proposed ordinance would allow windmills on 19.53 percent of all parcels. Put another way, the proposed ordinance would allow at least 8,974 wind energy conversion units in Abilene, more than 8,000 more than would be allowed under the current regulations.
But Doyle Dacus, an independent consultant who has worked with small turbine installers in Abilene, said the city’s proposed regulations may qualify more spaces for small turbines but there aren’t any local companies who meet all the criteria. The result, he said, will be that nobody will be able to install a small turbine inside city limits.
He plans to talk with city leaders before the issue goes before the council. Specifically he’s concerned about a requirement that turbines be mounted on engineered monopoles, as opposed to lattice towers with or without guy wires, and the requirement for a mechanical brake, which he said is obsolete in the industry.
The Texas State Energy Conservation Office estimates most small wind energy systems cost between $3,000 and $5,000 for every kilowatt of generating capacity. McRoy said he’s seen some in other parts of the state sell for more than $40,000.
At last year’s West Texas Wind Energy Trade Fair in Trent, Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg-based WindBucks Energy talked about a new Honeywell wind turbine he said could be installed outside a home for $8,000 to $10,000. The turbine, he said, could provide about 20 percent of the power used in a typical household.
Last year industry estimates put the installation cost for a small-scale turbine at $7 per watt, or about $7,000 for a turbine that produces 10 kilowatts, Dacus said. That cost has gone up, because of the rising cost of steel.
The high cost begs the question of whether such turbines are cost-effective for individual users.
Dacus said a properly installed small turbine in the proper location can generate enough electricity to pay for itself over 15 or 20 years.
But people may want them for non-monetary reasons, including valuing green energy and valuing a level of energy independence, he said.
Most windmills for an individual building produce less than 10 kilowatts, according to the DOE. Abilene’s ordinance would allow turbines that produce up to 100 kilowatts on large areas.
City staff noted that the industry is changing so rapidly that it’s likely costs will reduce substantially in the future as more businesses compete in the growing market.
All P&Z Commissioners voted in favor of the proposed changes except McClarty, who opposed the matter on the principle that he wouldn’t vote for a change that didn’t make wind energy converters available for residences.
“I want them everywhere,” he said. “I think everybody should have a chance to get one.”
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