Energy that can run with the wind

Now that solar panels no longer startle the eye, an even more ostentatious energy-conservation device has appeared here - and it is guaranteed to make heads turn.

The huge white propeller spinning in ghostly silence high on a hill almost invites gawking. This windmill and another in Tiverton, R.I., indicate some people are increasingly willing to leap into the future through an apparent step backward.

''I told Leon Brower we ought to form our own Tiverton windmill club,'' quips retired Navy Capt. William Platte from his outpost above the Sakonnet River. ''Of course, there would be just two members.''

The American Wind Energy Association maintains that more energy blows over the face of the earth each day than could ever be pumped or dug out of the earth. Thousands of latticed, wooden rigs once covered America until the Rural Electrification Act spawned the rampant power lines that now crisscross the landscape.

''I don't think anybody but a farmer who wanted to pump water ever thought about windmills, once REA came in back in the 1930s and '40s,'' observes Mr. Platte. ''But when we got into the energy crunch, people started thinking about them.''

Since its installation in September 1981 the Plattes' trusty 100-foot wind generator has supplied all their electrical needs; Mr. Brower's 80-foot monster has helped cut his energy bill by a third since last April.

More and more people are discovering that windmills do indeed save money.

It is no longer necessary to invest in expensive batteries or underground compression caverns. The Public Utilities Regulatory Power Act provides a simple solution to the chronic problem of how to store energy for inevitable windless days.

''So far, we've been producing a third more than we're using, so the rest goes into the national grid,'' Mr. Platte explains with bemusement. ''We sell it back to the electric company, and buy some later at wholesale whenever we need it.''

Although the Narragansett Electric Company pays for Mr. Platte's power at the company's production cost, rather than the higher retail rates, he asserts: ''You've locked in your price of electricity. In 20 years, at 10 percent inflation, my guess is that electricity would more than double in cost, whereas this machine would still produce at 10 cents.''

To meet the increasing demand, a new wave of American manufacturers has invaded the ''wind scene'' formerly dominated by Marcellus L. Jacobs and either European or Australian suppliers.

For example, the Plattes' Aerolite, which is made in South Dartmouth, Mass. - using an induction generator and excitation current from the electric company - yields 400-720 kilowatt hours (kwh) a month in 7-10 mile-per-hour (mph) winds. The Browers' Enertech from Energy Alternatives in Greenfield, Mass. - with conventional inverters and a motor for starting - generates 900 kwh a month, and is rated for 1,800 kw in 25 mph winds.

''One of the advantages is that we are 10 miles from the factory,'' Mr. Platte chuckles.

''Until recently, small wind generators haven't been that good,'' he adds. ''They've been in design infancy. But as the manufacturers learned more and more about blade design, they got a few bugs worked out.''

Because prevailing winds varied greatly on his property, Mr. Brower enlisted a wind prospector to find the best location for his tower.

''You have to get above 60 feet,'' he says. ''There's a layer of turbulence that covers the earth up to that height. The higher you go, the better. December , January, February, and March are the biggest months. Then in the summer you get a nice sou'wester.''

The local zoning board readily granted both men the variance required for structures more than 35 feet tall.

''The only problem is, if it falls, you need room,'' says Mr. Brower. But, he adds reassuringly: ''If the blades come off, they flutter.

''I checked around with the neighbors. A number of them are old-timers who said: 'We used to have a lot of windmills in Tiverton. It's about time there were some more.' ''

After a year and a half of personal research and 31/2 days of excavating, pouring a concrete foundation, and assembling the three-legged, galvanized tower , all else paled - even his daughter's engagement - when Bill Platte's three laminated-spruce blades, each 25 feet in diameter, were hoisted up by crane.

''I was out there helping them,'' he admits unabashedly. ''I call it my Oldsmobile in the sky. If you've looked at my car, it works just fine, but if I ever had to replace it, it would cost $13,000.''

Lately more than individual citizens are expressing interest in ''wind fuel.'' In conjunction with the Universities of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the Narragansett New England Power Company has arranged to outfit 10 neighborhood windmills (including the Plattes' and Browers') with anemometers, watt meters, and pulse recorders to feed into a computer several years of site-data information.

''It's very cantankerous,'' Mr. Platte asserts. ''It won't start when you're watching; it's shy. In this day and age, many people can afford windmills, but they haven't looked into them.''

He calculates that his own windmill should pay for itself in seven years, thanks to a hefty 40 percent government tax credit.

''While they're expensive,'' he says, ''they're affordable.''

Mr. Brower, gazing contentedly at his awesome machine, also points out the virtues of solar panels.

''I always wanted to be self-sufficient. The quicker people do it, the less it'll cost them.

''These things may take three to four years, or maybe even 10, to pay off, but so what?'' he asks. ''So does a mortgage. You've got to spend a little to get it back.''

Leon Brower advocates that anyone interested in windmills consult with other owners before choosing a brand. But he says he did not follow that advice; windmills were rarities then.

People should encounter less difficulty now, he says, as more and more Americans consider capturing the wind.

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