When Tybee Island council member Paul Wolff learned in August of a 50-kilowatt wind turbine that needed a home, he knew he wanted it for his beach community.
An international corporation had warehoused the turbine after a Wisconsin community to which it had been offered got negative feedback.
Wolff, a champion of environmental innovations on Tybee, wasted no time in approaching the corporation’s representative at the Georgia Environmental Conference on Jekyll Island.
“I said, ‘What are you going to do with it?’” Wolff recalled.
Research and negotiations ensued.
“Two months later he said it would be made available to Tybee if we agree to install it,” Wolff said. “It was the right time, right place. It was just there for the asking.”
Wolff declined to name the donor corporation before it’s more certain Tybee will accept the gift.
Now it’s time to find out whether the city wants it.
The City Council will host a town hall meeting about the wind turbine Monday from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Tybee Island City Hall.
“Tybee has a rare opportunity to acquire and install what will be the largest wind turbine south of Tennessee,” Wolff said.
The Endurance E-3120 wind turbine sits on a 120-foot monopole with its three blades’ sweep reaching a maximum height of 150 feet. That’s about the same height as the cell tower and water tower on Tybee. The lighthouse is 144 feet tall.
Given the typical wind on Tybee, the turbine would produce enough electricity to power about 20 homes. It’s worth about $300,000.
If Tybee accepts the donated turbine, the city would be responsible for paying the estimated $134,000 transportation and installation costs.
Wolff figures the city could recoup those costs in less than five years.
“It has a 20-year design life and it’s known to exceed that with proper maintenance,” he said. “We’ll net 15 years of free electricity. The net savings over a 20-year life are $390,000 at current electric rates.”
The leading site for its installation is at the water treatment plant on Polk Street at the island’s north end. For Tybee, the most cost-effective set up would be for the turbine to bypass the grid and instead directly power the water treatment plant, the city’s largest energy bill.
Georgia wind energy advocates are excited about Tybee’s prospects.
“Wind energy tends to be one of the most environmentally sound resources,” said Simon Mahan, renewable energy manager for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a nonprofit that’s sending a representative to speak at Monday’s meeting.
“Local wind is free,” he said. “The price of wind energy is predictable because the costs are associated nearly all in the installation and construction. You’re not paying for fuel so you can know the cost.”
And in Tybee’s case it wouldn’t be paying for the turbine, the single largest upfront cost.
Birds, noise and view
But would birds be paying for the turbine with their lives? Tybee sees plenty of migratory birds and supports habitat important for wintering piping plovers, an endangered species, and for red knots, a species being considered for threatened status. It also hosts nesting endangered wood storks. Nearby Little Tybee is home to American bald eagle nests.
It’s a legitimate question, but bird deaths shouldn’t be a big concern with this model, said Greg Courtney of Wind Turbines of South Carolina, who has installed more than 200 wind turbines.
Large utility scale turbines that can reach 300 feet tall and are grouped by the hundreds are the ones that statistically each kill “1.8 birds per year,” he said.
“This (model) is considered small scale,” Courtney said. “In the industry 100 kilowatts or less is small scale and this is 50. Small scale kills so few birds there aren’t even statistics on it.”
It’s also slow, with a fixed rotor speed of 42 revolutions per minute.
“Birds are not stupid,” he said. They’re able to see a slow-moving object.”
That slow speed makes it a quieter turbine, too.
“Typically, the noise is made by the blades,” said Courtney, who will be one of the presenters Monday. An adjunct professor at Ohio State University, he also runs Wind Turbines of Ohio. “Typically, they make a woof woof woof. This one does not do that at all. I’m going to present a video of it Monday and turn the volume way up.”
Mahan said the wind turbine could become a tourism draw.
“This is the first turbine of its kind on the Georgia coast. As such it could provide another reason to visit the island. We’ve seen them become points of pride in a community,” he said.
Former council member Kathryn Williams, who’s not decided where she stands on Tybee’s turbine, liked what she saw of wind turbines on a trip through some “small, quaint” New England towns.
“They were not obtrusive or anything like that,” said Williams, a partner in the North Beach Bar and Grill. “It just seemed to blend in with the water tower and taller buildings.”
Monday’s meeting is the first big public unveiling of the wind project. While Wolff is like a kid at Christmas about the donation, others like Mayor Jason Buelterman are more cautious.
“I don’t really know enough about the proposal,” he said. “I want to get more information. That’s all it is right now, a proposal in its infancy. Paul is bringing it to everyone’s attention.”
Council member Wanda Doyle is in a wait-and-see mode, too.
“I have nothing against wind turbines off the shoreline, but I do have some concerns, things I’ve read about birds and the height of the windmill,” she said. “I’m not forming a definite opinion until I go to the meeting. I want to keep as much open-minded as possible.
“I’m just not sure Tybee is ready for that. I want to get the facts together before I form an opinion.”
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