CORPUS CHRISTI – The conflict in Sinton over a proposal to install two wind turbines on the Sinton High School campus may be a first for Texas, and it illustrates the legal and political hurdles that a rapidly growing sector of the wind industry must overcome.
Sinton school trustees want to install two 155-foot turbines, about the height of the town water tower, for energy savings and education, but they encountered opposition at City Hall.
Whether city ordinances apply to a school district’s wind turbine project may not have been clearly established by court cases.
“We’ll be interested to watch and see what the outcome is,” said Barbara Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Boards. “It might be a learning experience for districts that are considering this.”
The Amarillo-based Underwood law firm has clients in both public schools and renewable energy and hasn’t encountered a case involving zoning rules as they apply to a school district’s wind turbines, attorney Fred Stormer said.
“It is a first,” he said.
Schools are under pressure to rein in energy costs under a state mandate, and federal grants and subsidies have made wind and solar projects more feasible for cash-strapped districts.
Technological advances and government incentives also are pushing more homeowners and businesses to consider turbines, pushing conflicts over wind energy into more densely populated areas with stricter zoning regulations.
The American Wind Energy Association reported the U.S. market for small to medium turbines grew from 4.9 megawatts of generating capacity in 2004 to 25.6 megawatts in 2010. That year saw the fastest growth yet, at 26 percent. Larry Flowers, an association official, said 2011 was a tougher year because of the recession and expiration of some state subsidies, but he did not have final numbers for the year.
The rapid emergence of small to midsize turbines that offset electricity costs at a home, business or public facility has left cities across the country grappling with how to regulate the structures, which don’t often fit easily into existing ordinances.
These zoning conflicts were identified as the No. 1 obstacle for the small-to-medium wind turbine industry during a 2010 U.S. Department of Energy workshop featuring industry, academic and government experts.
The industry also must overcome objections about costs, government subsidies, noise, aesthetics, and worries about property values – all voiced by residents at Sinton City Hall last week.
Then there are questions about the turbines themselves: Are they safe and reliable? Will the manufacturer be around to maintain them years after they’re built? The Energy Department noted a flood of new turbines have entered the U.S. market from domestic and international suppliers without completing certification tests. The U.S. industry has fought back with new certification programs for turbines.
The looming expiration of federal energy production tax credits for wind farms at the end of 2012 and the highly contentious efforts to extend the credits as the nation’s debt soars has the energy debate spilling over from Capitol Hill into town halls.
“The issue of renewable energy development has been polarized in recent months across the country,” said Russel Smith, director of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association. “Anybody paying attention who is politically oriented and motivated will be aware of that. As a result, in many local communities, the effort to put some restrictions is the first thing that happens” when a wind project is proposed.
THE SINTON STORY
Sinton school officials began considering their project in 2009, and the city passed a wind turbine ordinance in October 2011 with a 40-foot height restriction. The school district maintains the city ordinance doesn’t apply to its project because the ordinance governs turbines of 10 kilowatts or smaller. The district’s turbines have a 100-kilowatt capacity.
The district also points to court rulings that said cities can’t enforce zoning regulations on school districts. Other rulings suggest the opposite, and courts are likely to consider applicability of zoning rules based on the details of each case, said Stormer, the Amarillo attorney.
Sinton’s Board of Adjustment denied the school district’s request for variances to the ordinance after residents questioned the project at a public hearing. School Superintendent Steve VanMatre is trying to press ahead and invited city officials to join him on a visit to Seadrift, near Port Lavaca, this week. Seadrift City Hall installed a Northern Power 100, the same model of turbine proposed at Sinton High School.
VanMatre said he hopes the visit and additional public meetings will give him a chance to dispel what he sees as confusion over the scope of the project. Some residents, he said, envision megawatt-sized turbines such as those found at wind farms that reach nearly 300 feet and beyond. And he wants city officials to see and hear the Northern Power turbine in person. The noise has been compared to a refrigerator or washing machine.
“It’s extremely quiet,” said Don Lynch, facilities director for the University of North Texas System, which installed Northern Power 100s at its new football stadium in Denton. “You can stand underneath them, carry on a normal conversation, and you hear just a little bit of a whoosh.”
The university did not have same zoning hurdles to clear because it’s a state agency, Lynch said. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, preparing to install three 20-kilowatt turbines and eight 4-kilowatt turbines, also didn’t have to worry about the Corpus Christi wind turbine ordinance, university spokeswoman Cassandra Hinojosa said.
VanMatre said he also wants to allay residents’ concerns about the cost of the project. It’s being funded with a $974,000 federal grant, part of a pool of economic stimulus money set aside for renewable energy projects. The school district pays $243,000 in matching funds.
District officials expect to get a full return on their investment in about eight years, with $33,660 a year in savings on their electric bill. VanMatre acknowledges the project wouldn’t be possible without the federal grant.
Lynch said the university probably would have opted out too, had it not had funding through the same grant program.
This is where the debate over turbines can turn political, as people question whether it’s a good policy decision to subsidize wind.
“Besides the impacts on our property, as a taxpayer, we’re afraid that the school is just pouring a million dollars down a rathole for a science project that is going to end up putting America deeper in debt than it already is,” said John Barrett, a Sinton landowner who wants to develop residential lots near the school.
Based on an analysis of figures provided by the school district, the federal grant lowers the cost of the turbine-generated electricity over the life of the project to about 4.9 cents per kilowatt-hour, the unit of energy typically used in utility rates. If the school footed the bill for all of the construction, it would pay 22.3 cents per kilowatt hour. The district expects to pay an average of about 15.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for traditional electricity over the life of the turbines (until 2032).
Lynch noted that no matter how a person feels about the federal subsidies, the stimulus money has been allocated, and grants will be awarded.
“The money is going to go to somebody,” he said. “If y’all don’t get it, somebody else will.”
Lynch said the university found it impossible to do an accurate cost-benefit analysis of the turbines because the electricity provider in Denton doesn’t charge a flat rate and projecting wind production against demand became too complex. But the university weighed other benefits.
“It’s all about learning for us,” Lynch said. “We have a school of engineering, a school of construction materials. There’s tons of different applications for our students. That data (from the turbines) now becomes a real live learning environment for them.”
Sinton High School hopes to reap similar benefits for its science, engineering, technology and math students.
School districts that have taken on turbine projects are largely centered in West Texas on rural campuses where zoning clashes are less likely. Superintendents at Shallowater and Springlake-Earth school districts said their biggest problems involved maintenance.
Springlake-Earth chose turbines from a Canadian manufacturer that later went out of business. It became difficult to find qualified mechanics.
“Do due diligence,” Superintendent Denver Crum suggested. “Make sure that company is strong and viable.”
Shallowater Superintendent Phil Warren said he suggests schools choose turbines without gear boxes, so they have fewer moving parts that need maintenance.
Northern Power is a 34-year-old company based in Vermont, with presence throughout North America and in Europe and Asia. The Northern Power 100 has no gearbox, and most maintenance is limited to a periodic exchange of grease cartridges the size of a soda can, company spokesman James Jennings said.
The largest maintenance cost driver is transportation to the work site, Crum said. Northern Power works with service providers based in Texas. VanMatre said their response time on maintenance calls is about four hours.
IF YOU GO
What: Sinton ISD superintendent’s listening session
Where: Sinton High School, 400 N. Pirate Blvd.
When: 6 p.m. March 5
Why: Superintendent Steve VanMatre will present information and take questions on the district’s wind turbine project.
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