About 100 people packed Tybee Island’s City Hall Monday night to hear about a 50-kilowatt wind turbine offered to the beach town for free.
“We have a unique opportunity to invest our tax dollars in our future with very minimal investment because this is a gift,” said Councilman Paul Wolff, who has negotiated thus far in private with an international corporation for the wind turbine, an Endurance E-3120 model valued at $272,000.
To some, it’s a no-brainer to accept the gift, get it running for an estimated $134,000 in shipping and installation expenses and start reaping the benefits of its clean energy. But others fear the turbine could turn out to be a white elephant, putting Tybee on the hook for its removal should it not perform as predicted.
Wolff, along with installers from Wind Turbines of South Carolina, a wind energy advocate from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and a representative from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, detailed the project for two hours before the floor opened up for questions and comments.
Birds and the upfront costs of installation topped the list of specific concerns about the turbine. The favored site for the 150-foot tall turbine is Tybee’s water treatment plant on the north end. It uses more electricity than any other single site run by the Tybee city government, and powering it directly with the wind turbine would produce the best return, estimated at more than $400,000 over the 20-year life of the project.
But wildlife biologist Tim Keyes saw reason for caution there in the form of nearby habitat for endangered piping plovers and for red knots, a species being considered for federal listing.
“If I look at the overall map of Tybee, this is the last place I’d put it,” said Keyes, of the wildlife resources division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Keyes read from a letter by Mike Harris, chief of the nongame conservation section of the division, that stated Georgia lacks siting guidelines for wind energy projects. Applying standards developed in other states, however, would suggest the turbine should be set back 1,400 meters if it lies between a roosting and foraging area as this one does.
“Construction of this project at this site would not be in accordance with existing wind energy guidelines and could pose a risk to Georgia shorebirds and seabirds, including several protected species,” the letter read in part.
Tybee Fire Chief Skip Sasser posed a laundry list of concerns, as a “devil’s advocate,” he said. They ranged from why Wolff didn’t reveal what company is offering the turbine to why it wouldn’t be better to spend the installation money on safety equipment or personnel.
“A windmill is not going to protect a 5-year-old child being swept out to sea,” he said.
Wolff responded that the company involved preferred to remain anonymous until Tybee agreed to install the turbine and then “they’ll take all the PR we can give them.”
Tybee’s costs would be quickly recouped, Wolff said.
“This isn’t an expense, it’s an investment,” he said. “That $134,000 that installs the turbine saves us $3,000 a year. That’s a police cruiser. Save that up for three years and it’s a fire truck. And we’re starting with a $300,000 gift so we’re getting a great return on the installation cost.”
Several speakers who were pro-wind energy nevertheless urged caution.
“Please say thanks but no thanks for now and put an item in the next budget for a feasibility study for offshore wind and solar alternatives,” said Tybee resident Pam O’Brien.
Her remarks paralleled those of Megan Desrosiers, executive director of 100 Miles, a new environmental group dedicated to protecting the Georgia coast. She suggested taking the time and expense to study – estimated at two years and $50,000 – to determine where to put the turbine for the best wind and least impacts to birds.
“This is something to be proud of so let’s make sure we can be proud of it and other places can use the example we’re setting and replicate it across the coast,” she said.
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