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'Small wind' power plants are blowing strong

Climate concerns, rising utility costs, better technology, and new laws are making home units more attractive.

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"Zoning is always an issue, it's something we understand now and we go in prepared to show the benefits," says Don Mosher, president of Southern New England Wind Power, based in Portsmouth, R.I.

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Even so, zoning battles over wind power are increasing. Loebelenz had to hire a lawyer. Even then, he might have lost the fight had not an octogenarian neighbor, Beverly Ryburn, not come to his rescue by rallying others to help.

Pointing to a plaque on his tower that reads: "The Beverly," Loebelenz notes: "I named my wind generator after her because, without her, it probably would not have been built."

Wind power can be expensive. Small wind turbines for homes run in the 2- to 10-kilowatt range. A smaller machine can cost from $12,000 to $60,000, installed. A rule of thumb: Turbine systems cost about $6 to $8 per watt (1 kilowatt = 1,000 watts), installed.

Loebelenz also has a big solar array on his barn roof next to the wind turbine. On many days, when the wind generator is humming and solar panels are cooking, he's generating far more energy than he uses, so he sells the overage to the power company.

It's that link to the power grid that's been key to small-wind growth. While wind power has long been popular for "off the grid" homes miles from power lines, growth in residential "grid tied" homes lagged until "net metering" laws were passed. Net metering means a utility must buy back extra power.

Better wind technology has helped, too. Lighter magnets in the generators, blades that adjust to wind conditions, and units that wirelessly report how much power they're making – along with global-warming concerns – are creating a "perfect storm" of interest in suburban, even urban residential wind power.

"Everything we had done historically was off-grid and international, but ... about six, seven years ago really, things started percolating," says Andy Kruse, vice president of Southwest Windpower, the nation's largest small-wind manufacturer, in Flagstaff, Ariz.

The company's newest small turbine – the 1.8-kilowatt "Skystream" – is aimed at the residential market. In February, the company said a Skystream would be erected at the Maine home of former President George H.W. Bush.

But Robin Wilson already has a Skystream wind generator atop a 45-foot pole sticking out of her new zero-energy home in San Francisco's Mission District. Hers may be the first such "urban residential turbine," though she can't be quite sure.

Ms. Wilson may have started something because San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom visited her home recently and says he's forming a group to study the idea of expanding residential wind throughout the city.

"I love the idea of being a zero-energy home and wind is helping me get there," says Wilson, whose neighbors "just love it" she says. The "scimitar-style" high-tech blades emit little noise, she says, "just a little hum."

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