Costs of home-grown power

Posted Dec. 28, 2009, at 7:13 p.m.

After reading the “Going green carefully in Dixmont” column by Carolyn Dodge (BDN OpEd, Dec. 7), I felt it necessary to shed some light on her positions on becoming a low-impact citizen in our high-impact society. Lessons learned from those who survive off-grid are useful in examining our own “footprints,” but we also must consider the actual energy value of an off-grid lifestyle.

Ms. Dodge wrote that her off-grid home has a small wind turbine that provides a portion of her electrical generation needs and that it produced just under 200 kilowatt-hours in its first full year. I know from previous conversations with Ms. Dodge that this is a 1,000-watt unit that cost $5,000 to install.

Let’s do some math with those figures. This means that her wind generator produced a whopping average of 16.7 kwh per month of operation. A 1,000-watt generator has the potential to produce 8,760 kwh in a year if it runs at 100 percent capacity. Her unit operated at a capacity of 2.28 percent.

People often criticize wind power because it produces only a fraction of its nameplate capacity. For most commercial wind turbines the figure has to be 30 percent or more to be feasible. The Mars Hill wind project has produced 42 percent of its capacity, according to some reports. The turbines at Mars Hill are each rated at 1.5 million watts, which means that it would take 27,574 turbines similar to the one installed at the Dodge home to equate to the generation produced by one of the turbines at Mars Hill.

Where would Ms. Dodge like us to put those 27,574 turbines? Given the $5,000 cost, that would mean that the equivalent cost would be $137.8 million to match one $4 million “industrial” unit. If I were choosing how Maine should plan its energy future in a carbon-constrained world, the best path is obvious.

Ms. Dodge mentioned Pittsfield’s wind turbine, which has 10 times the capacity of hers. It is geographically well-sited and sits atop a 100-foot tower. Time will tell how long it will take to get a payback on that machine, which was installed at a cost slightly under $60,000, with grant assistance from Efficiency Maine. In comparison to her turbine, I expect that it will achieve far better results.

If one uses a value of $0.16 per kwh for the 200 kwh of energy her turbine has produced in its first year, her $5,000 investment has generated a mere $32 worth of power. It will pay for itself in about 156 years. To keep things in perspective, remember that Ms. Dodge is happy with this performance. Pittsfield’s turbine is conservatively expected to pay for itself in less than 20 years. It is planned to be used for educational purposes, which is likely more valuable than its electricity.

To close the loop, a $4 million machine with production results similar to the turbines at Mars Hill would cover its installed cost in 7.25 years if it received $0.10/kwh. Ms. Dodge’s claims that large industrial machines are not justified or economic, while extolling the virtues of small backyard units, are simply not supported by the numbers.

One last note that deserves comment concerns Ms. Dodge’s thoughts about the fact that a turbine uses 200 gallons of lubricating and hydraulic oil, as if this somehow proves that it is an oil-consuming behemoth looming over the ridge line. This is a disingenuous attempt to make the machines appear less than green. However, those mineral oils are easily reclaimed and reusable for years. In our “reduce-reuse-recycle” world, such an effort should be applauded.

Most of our homes are heated with No. 2 heating oil, often burning about 1,000 gallons in a winter. Conversion to wind-generated electric heat using heat pumps and thermal storage, combined with a smarter grid, would go a long way to reducing our carbon footprint. It certainly would keep Maine a livable place for many years. The 200 gallons of reusable lubricating oil used in a wind turbine is a much better use of a finite resource than the alternative.

The state has developed a reasonable, heavily reviewed and well-designed model ordinance for community control over wind development. Dixmont adopted its own ordinance and has demonstrated why emotions should not govern policy decisions. The 1-mile setback requirement it has instituted is nothing more than a ban in disguise. Those who want to halt the expansion of wind development are deliberately offering unrealistic alternatives. You’ve heard of NIMBY — Not in My Backyard. Their approach is BANANA — Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

Rep. Stacey Fitts is a third-term legislator from Pittsfield. He serves on the Utilities and Energy Committee and was a member of the Governor’s Wind Power Task Force, the Ocean Energy Task Force, the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Energy Future and the recent Energy Infrastructure Study Commission. He is employed as an engineer with Kleinschmidt, an energy and water resource consulting firm based in Pittsfield.

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