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An idea blowing in the wind: Interest in wind turbines growing August 25, 2009

Posted by Laura Arnold in Uncategorized.
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Interest in energy-producing wind turbines
has picked up locally in tough economy.

An idea blowing in the wind: Interest in wind turbines growing – The Elkhart Truth – Elkhart, IN

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Published: 8/25/2009 12:00:00 AM
Last Updated: 8/24/2009 11:15:42 PM

By: Dustin Lawrence dlawrence@etruth.com

ELKHART — Only a light morning breeze hit the Skystream 3.7 wind turbine. After looking up the 45-foot tower, Glen Smith grabbed a three-foot-long wrench and began tightening the bolts at its base.

“Have to make sure the unit’s level,” Smith explained. As the breeze began to pick up, the three carbon fiber fins began to slowly rotate. “And there they go.”

Nearly five years ago Smith was servicing similar towers for a cellular phone company. But as the economy began to spin downward he was laid off. That’s when Smith and his brother, Dave, began looking for a new way to utilize their engineering know-how. After meeting with Southwest Windpower, the manufacturer of the Skystream turbine, the brothers were awarded a dealership to sell the turbines. They called their new venture Wind-Wire.

Now Wind-Wire is the central Midwest dealer for Skystream turbines and business is booming. Based out of St. Joseph County, they sell and install generators in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. But even in Elkhart County, where unemployment is still at a stifling 16.7 percent, Smith says the machines are piquing interest.

“In Elkhart County we have been doing one to two (installations) a month lately,” he said. “It’s a good county. The people are proactive.”

Back in 2008, only one request for a wind generator went through the Elkhart County Planning Department. But since April there have been six requests and more are expected. Other businesses that supply residential wind turbines in Elkhart County say they too have noticed a spike in consumer interest.

But the trend isn’t specific to only Elkhart County. Smith says residents are putting up wind turbines throughout the Midwest and across much of the country.

“We will have done a hundred by the end of the year,” he said. “By next year we will be well over 100.”

Smith says the reason that so many have begun to purchase his turbines — which cost around $12,500 after the tax credits — is because people are looking to lower their energy costs or in some cases get rid of them all together.

“If this (turbine) is humming it will pretty much power that whole house,” he claimed, pointing to a single-story ranch house. “Any energy that this puts out and that the house is not using … It will turn the meter backwards.”

On the Skystream Web site the company claims that its product typically lowers a household electric bill by 30 to 80 percent.

Nick Meyer, communications manager for Northern Indiana Public Service Company, notes NIPSCO does not buy back power but offers customers with wind generators participation in its net metering program.

“If the customer generates more power than they’re using then they build up a credit,” Meyer said about the net metering program.

Other utilities in Indiana, such as AEP’s Indiana Michigan Power, offer similar net metering programs. However, Indiana law doesn’t allow net metering benefits for wind generators that produce more than 10 kilowatts. Of the 42 states that require net metering, Indiana has one of the most restrictive limits. Arizona and Ohio don’t have any limits.

Still, power generated by a wind turbine directly offsets the cost of power from the grid.

That’s one reason why Mark and Paula Steiner decided to get a wind turbine. Wind-Wire recently installed a 45-foot wind tower in the couple’s back yard.

“In the long run the extra cash will go back to my children’s college funds,” Steiner said, also admitting that environmental impact was a reason they purchased the wind turbine.

Yet Steiner also says she wouldn’t have bought the wind turbine without the tax credits.

Heidi McHugh, marketing manager for Mobile Home and Energy, a Middlebury supplier of solar and wind energy options, says her company has seen a 15 percent increase in business since January. That’s when the Federal Tax Credits for Energy Efficiency went into affect, allowing consumers such as Steiner to get up to 30 percent of the costs for energy saving projects.

But the initial costs is one reason why many can’t install wind generators on their properties. The American Wind Energy Association says a typical home wind system costs around $32,000 installed and an Indiana Consumers Guide says they can cost as much as $50,000.

Even though Wind-Wire’s systems cost far less than those estimates, Smith notes there is another deterrent — a lack of wind. On a six-tiered system that measures wind productivity, most of Northern Indiana is rated a class two. That means the estimated productivity per square mile is 350 to 500 kilowatt-hours per year. In a class-six area, the productivity is 770 to 880 kilowatt-hours per year.

While costs and lack of wind has turned some in Elkhart County away from wind energy, it has inspired others. Doug Martin, an engineer with a background in ultralight flyers, has already raised three prototype wind turbines, which he says are more efficient than most others on the market.

On his 17-acre property rise testaments to his resolution — 80-foot high towers topped by his prototype generators.

“This all starts somewhere,” Martin said. “At one point Bill Gates was sitting in his college dorm room saying, ‘You know what, software is the next big thing.'”

Martin says that like the famed entrepreneur, he too is a “capitalist” who has noticed a future demand across the county. And even as companies like Home and Mobile Energy and Wind-Wire are now seeing more customers, Martin hopes to further perfect his design.

“In the very near future,” Martin said, “this (renewable energy) could be the biggest market.”

Wind-Wire of South Bend and Home and Mobile Energy of Middlebury are both Business Members of the Indiana Renewable Energy Association.

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