United Wind is a San Diego-based wind energy company that is targeting Massachusetts – along with three other states – to bring leased wind energy turbines to local businesses, organizations and residences. In Worcester County, United Wind is targeting the towns of Princeton, Paxton, Ashburnham and Westminster. The company has determined that the towns have good wind locations, high energy costs and a good green energy incentive program through the state of Massachusetts.
Under the company’s WindLease plan, United Wind will test, obtain permitting for, build and then own the wind turbines it puts on private property for 20 years. Most landowners who qualify will pay no money down, according to United Wind President Tal Mamo. The landowners’ leases to United Wind, and their reduced electric bills, would cost less than the landowners’ current electric bills, Mr. Mamo said.
If their turbines do not meet expectations for power output, United Wind will give the landowners credit on their leases for the difference, he said. And if the turbines exceed power output expectations, the customers will enjoy the savings in their electric bill, free and clear.
The company recently received $25 million in private equity funding to get WindLease off the ground. That will translate to roughly 120 turbines total in rural areas of New York state, Massachusetts, Maryland and Oregon. Mr. Mamo said eventually he would like to see the program grow to $500 million and be available around the country.
Mr. Mamo said his company has built 150 wind turbines the traditional way, which is when a landowner funds the entire cost of permitting and construction, applies for whatever federal and state benefits are available (there are many), and then earns the money back in cost savings on future electricity bills over eight, 10, 20 years.
A wind turbine funded this way costs the typical homeowner $70,000 to $100,000; the typical farm or small business pays $350,000 to $500,000.
“So, the biggest obstacle to wind power has been the cost,” Mr. Mamo said. “This is a new way of getting wind turbines to people without having to come up with so much upfront cash.”
The model has worked well in the solar power industry, in which thousands of small business owners and homeowners have leased solar panels on their roofs, the cost of which is offset by dramatically lower electric bills over time.
But there were some red flags for me.
I couldn’t find much about United Wind online. I checked with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which would be processing any state incentive programs for wind power.
“I checked with our wind team, and we haven’t had any dealings with them,” said Matt Kakley, the center’s spokesman. “They haven’t come through here for any of our grant programs.”
So, it’s a new program, I get that.
Mr. Mamo told me in a phone interview that United Wind had completed some projects in Massachusetts, but there is no evidence of that on their website.
I spoke with Jim Athearn, owner of Morning Glory Farm, who has had a turbine on his 120-acre farm since 2010. It was installed by the same company, Great Rock Windpower, that will install turbines in Massachusetts as part of the WindLease program. Mr. Athearn put his turbine up long before WindLease existed.
Mr. Athearn said his $240,000 turbine was completely paid for by state, federal and utility company grants, and is producing about 80,000 kilowatt hours of energy a year, representing about two-thirds of his farm’s energy use.
Still, I remain a skeptic of wind power for the masses.
Wind power, for all its claims of being as environmentally friendly as solar power, comes with certain disadvantages. The first, of course, is wind, which can be frustratingly fickle.
“Each property is very different, even neighbor to neighbor,” Mr. Mamo said.
United Wind has software that allows the company to estimate wind production at a given site. You just punch in your address and area code to the company’s website, and it can give you an automatic assessment of your property’s potential for wind.
Then, if you give them a phone number and some information about your electric bill, a salesman will call you and talk about how much you can save.
But the whole thing goes against what they are saying about targeting specific communities because they have good wind production. Is wind fickle from property to property, or not? Is an entire town a good candidate for a wind turbine? For me, it’s too much sales pitch, not enough science.
Other problems that have cropped up with wind power include angry abutters, who often object to a huge monopole being built near their homes; and the flicker effect, when sunlight, bouncing off those spinning turbine blades, creates a light-shadow-light pattern that can bother neighbors at certain times of day. Then there are bird kills and other problems.
Former state Rep. Mark Howland of Freetown sold dozens of wind turbines from Fall River to Cape Cod from 2005-2006, only to have the turbines fall over, break down or simply not producing any power. The Howlands were ordered to pay back $400,000 to swindled customers.
United Wind is taking most of the risk with this WindLease deal. If their contract terms are solid, a landowner can get lower electric bills, no upfront costs and no ownership of the turbine for 20 years. United Wind offers a warranty on its work, and will fix any technical or physical problems, because it will own the turbine.
Wind power is certainly better for the environment than some of the power we’re currently using, like coal. But I think results so far in Massachusetts have been mixed.
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