Sales soar to new heights for wind turbine systems

Electricity costs prompt homeowners to take new look at alternative energy

Home wind turbines may never become be as ubiquitous as satellite dishes, but their popularity is steadily gaining momentum.

In 2000, the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C., reported small wind system sales rang in at $19.26 million . In 2006, the number rose to $52 million , a 170 percent increase.

Some homeowners find the allure in projected energy bill savings, but many others are out to save the planet. And as state incentive programs for small renewable energy systems emerge, retailers like Mark Durrenberger of New England Breeze in Hudson and Steve Pitney of Alternative Energy Inc. in Plymouth are fielding a barrage of inquiries and racking up sales for these high-ticket items.

Turbines work by taking energy produced by the wind and converting it into electricity for a home’s power needs. Most turbines look a bit like an airplane propeller atop a flagpole or affixed to the side of a house. The blades are typically made of fiberglass and epoxy or carbon fiber, and are mounted on steel structures that can reach up to 120 feet high.

Usually a home is connected to both a turbine and the local power grid . When the wind dips below an average of 8 miles per hour, a home will then draw power from the utility company. If a system produces more electricity than it uses, the excess can be sold back to many utility companies, which is called net-metering.

According to Durrenberger, the average price of a wind turbine sufficient to power a 1,500-square-foot home that uses 9,000 kilowatt-hours a year is between $11,000 and $14,000. His Skystream 3.7 is designed to replace one-third to one-half of a home’s power usage.

“Depending on grants, tax rebates, wind conditions, and the cost of electricity, a homeowner can expect to recoup their investment within seven to 15 years,” said Durrenberger.

To replace 100 percent of the power, he said, would require a larger turbine in the range of $30,000 to $40,000.

A savings that’s of equal or greater importance to those purchasing turbines is the amount of clean air preserved.

“One kilowatt-hour from the grid in the United States is generating a pound of carbon emissions,” said Christine Real de Azua , from the American Wind Energy Association.

Nationally, the typical energy mix on a grid comes from a variety of sources, she said: half from coal; about 20 percent from natural gas; 20 percent nuclear; and the rest from oil, hydropower, and other sources.

Durrenberger said it takes 1 gallon of oil to produce 40 kilowatt-hours.

Despite the increase in interest, local zoning laws can throw a wrench into plans. Most existing ordinances do not address turbines, and local zoning authorities and neighbors of prospective owners often have qualms about noise, safety, and visual impact.

Bob Loebelenz of Dover had a rough time getting his turbine approved back in 2001. Loebelenz, who said he is in his 60 s, was awarded a building permit to install a Whisper 175 wind turbine on his 2-acre farm, but a day or two before he was going to raise the tower, he was handed a stop-work order.

“The local building inspector told me that a segment of the town building code had been missed,” he said.

After nearly a year of meetings with the town officials and neighbors, and $13,000 in legal fees, he got the go-ahead.

Loebelenz purchased his turbine from Southwest Windpower of Flagstaff, Ariz . He paid $5,000 for the turbine and $13,000 for the tower, which he bought from a telecommunications company in Indiana that was closing shop.

Loebelenz prefers not to hypothesize when he will get a return on his investment. As of now, the wind and solar panels on his barn roof supply most of his needs.

“Yesterday we were essentially off-grid for the barn and the house,” he said. They used only 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity and that was to run the electric stove.

During horse breeding season, he said, they use a lot more power as the barn lights are kept on throughout the night, and when the hay arrives, a 20-ton electric elevator from the delivery truck works for six hours straight.

Durrenberger, of New England Breeze, , is new in the wind business, but a veteran in energy conservation. The 45-year-old holds a master’s in energy engineering and a bachelor’s in nuclear engineering. After 11 years running a project management consultation firm, he returned to his passion of energy conservation and in 2006 began providing solar and wind electricity generation, and solar water heating, systems to businesses and homes. He is now preparing to install home wind turbines in North Brookfield, Chelsea, Ashby, and Berlin.

Steve Pitney, founder of Alternate Energy LLC, has been in the business of solar, wind, and water energy for more than three decades. The 55- year-old Plymouth resident grew up with an environmentalist mother who was tossing orange peels into her garden long before composting was in vogue. He attended Boston University, where he majored in population biology, and opened shop soon after graduation in 1974 . Pitney said his Plymouth home is his laboratory.

“We have solar heating, solar electric, two types of solar electric roofs, and a wind turbine,” he said.

Five years ago, Pitney received between 10 and 15 inquires a week from potential customers. Now he gets around 60.

Each installation, he said, is as exciting as the first.

“I get an adrenaline rush when I see a meter spin backwards or it makes free heat or free electricity,” he said.

Sales from 2005 to 2006 tripled, and from 2006 to 2007, he said, have almost quadrupled. Pitney has installed turbines all across New England and Massachusetts, including in Westport, East Freetown, Dartmouth, and New Braintree.

Two of his recent installations took place at Falmouth Academy on Cape Cod, and at the home of Christopher and Rachelle Croteau in East Bridgewater. The couple had been looking into sustainable systems for nearly a decade and settled on wind power, as they felt it was a more reliable source at their location, where the average wind speed is 12.8 miles per hour.

They had no issues with the neighbors, erecting the 90-foot Bergey 10-kilowatt turbine.

What they found curious was an old bylaw in the town that stated any structure over 35 feet high had to be attached to an additional structure, which dates back to the days when silos were built and connected to barns.

“Instead of a barn or shed we chose to put up a greenhouse,” said Croteau.

Also surprising was the price of the permit, at $4,700. Total cost, including turbine and installation: $125,000.

Croteau, 35, a senior account executive for a marketing company, anticipates the family will recoup its investment in six years.

Whether selling or buying a system, all involved say they want freedom from the oil and fossil fuel companies. Croteau and his wife also want to teach their children about conservation and alternative energy.

“At 5 and 7 years old, they’re very plugged in to what’s going on,” said Croteau. “If we cultivate this in our children, that’s the mind-set they’ll grow up with.”

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com

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