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Wednesday, 05 July 2006 00:00

Baby steps toward green power

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Talitha and Louis Mes erected a 100-foot tall wind tower on a ridge above Crabtree last week to generate environmentally-friendly power for their home, marking the first privately installed wind turbine in this part of the mountains.

“We decided as much as we can, we would like to go green,” Talitha said. “Our whole idea was to be totally independent.”

The Meses already use solar panels to power their hot water heater and heat their home. The solar panel set-up cost the Meses $15,000. Amortize that over the life of a home mortgage, though, and it’s not so bad, Louis said.

“It might add $20 a month to your mortgage and you’ll save at least that much on winter heating costs and electricity,” Louis said.

The wind tower, however, was a different story. The set-up cost was about $45,000. The Meses aren’t going save that much in electricity on their lifetime.

“We are not doing this to save money,” Talitha said. “We are doing this because it is the right thing. If you can do it, you should.”

The Meses live part-time in Louisiana, where Louis works as a plastic surgeon. Not everyone can afford a $45,000 windmill, however, or even the $15,000 it costs upfront for the solar power panels. That kind of price tag makes green power something seemingly attainable only for the wealthy, at least for right now.

Power customers without that kind of pocket book have another option, however. For an extra $4 a month on their power bill, North Carolina residents can buy a block of environmentally friendly electricity through the N.C. Green Power program. But nearly three years into the program, only 8,000 power customers in the state have signed up — accounting for less than one-half of 1 percent of all power customers.

Despite media reports increasingly highlighting global warming, air pollution and the danger of dependency on foreign oil, consumers are not lining up to vote with their pocketbooks. If consumers proved there was a demand for green power, utilities would see dollar signs and respond accordingly. But consumers left to their own devices aren’t forking over the extra $4 a month for green power, which raises this question: is a large-scale shift in energy use possible through the market forces of supply-and-demand capitalism alone, or will it require national policy to move the nation toward cleaner energy.

In the meantime, Talitha is going to do what she can.

“Someone has to start. If everyone sits around and says ‘I’m just one person. I can’t do anything about it,’ well, start,” Talitha said. “It just takes one person to start. Someone has to be the first.”

When it comes to moral buying decisions versus the pocketbook — whether it’s paying more for a hybrid car or for clothing not made in sweat shops — Talitha recognizes that she and her husband are exceptions to the rule. But she said that’s how movements start. Talitha said consumer-driven market changes do appear to be slow — but change is happening nonetheless.

“People weren’t even talking about it 20 years ago,” Talitha said.

While the number of power customers signing up for N.C. Green Power is minuscule, the number of people participating in the program is growing — it’s nearly doubled in the past year. In addition, some power customers are buying more than one $4 share of the green power.

“Not only have the number of customers increased, but the number of blocks per customer is up as well,” said Ken Maxwell, spokesperson for Progress Energy in Asheville.

The Meses hope their windtower will spark interest in green power. The extra power generated by their windmill will be on the N.C. Green Power program. The windmill is expected to generate enough electricity for one-and-a-half typical homes, judging by a wind strength monitor the Meses installed last year to determine that a wind tower was feasible.

Surplus power from the wind tower will be dumped on the power grid for use by others taking part in the Green Power program. The wind tower is connected to a gigantic battery pack in the Meses’ garage. As the wind tower turns, it stores electricity in the batteries. When the batteries are full, power is sent out over the grid instead.

The Meses are paid for their surplus power — but not very much. They have to pay a monthly fee for a power meter that measures how much surplus power they are putting back on the grid. The Meses wouldn’t make enough to cover the monthly cost of the meter.

But thanks to the N.C. Green Power program, the Meses get a supplement over and above the wholesale prices the utility company pays for their surplus power. If it weren’t for the consumers elsewhere in the state paying $4 a month on their power bills to support through the N.C. Green Power program, the Meses said they would not be able to distribute their surplus power over the grid.

 

The downside to windmills

Not everyone is a fan of the Meses’ wind tower. The wind tower can be seen from the valley floor in Crabtree, and some neighbors don’t like that.

“It is an eyesore,” said Jack Kinsell of Crabtree. “Every morning I would wake up and look out the window and see the ridge line. Now I am going to wake up and look out my window and see a 100-foot windmill tower.”

Haywood County has no regulations on wind towers, unlike cell towers, which have guidelines for where they can be placed and how high they can protrude above the tree line. Kinsell asked whether the energy generated by the wind towers is worth it, especially if wind towers multiply in the mountains, including large-scale wind farms by utility companies covering the ridge tops.

“We do not want these huge windmills lined up like little soldiers all over the horizon,” agreed Kelley Carey, another of the Meses’ neighbors. “Windmills are a great idea, but they should be put in context of other environmental concerns like the beauty of the mountains.”

Carey said windmills contribution to clean electricity is infinitesimal.

“Until windmills can deal with cars, it is not going to address the majority of air pollution,” Carey said. Carey recommended reducing smokestack emissions and finding more viable sources of clean energy that can provide mass quantities of power.

Talitha Mes said the grave consequences of global warming and unhealthy ozone levels already killing trees and plants at high elevations outweigh any aesthetic issues of windmills. When asked whether she was willing to look out her window and see a ridgeline of wind towers, Talitha replied, “If it saves all these trees that are going to die, then yes.”

Another strike against wind towers is the potential for their blades to kill migrating birds. But the Meses said research has disputed that. Besides, global warming would kill far more birds. Some are already suffering, from penguins who rely on disappearing iceflows to migrating rainforest birds. Spring is coming earlier in the northern summer habitats of migrating birds, and the bugs have already hatched by the time the migrating birds arrive, cutting into needed nutrition nesting.

Many forms of green power face opposition, not just wind towers. A N.C. Green Power commission faced a major split over methane energy captured from hog farm waste. Hog farm lagoons are a major source of water quality pollution in eastern North Carolina. Some on the committee did not think methane by-products from these hog farm lagoons should qualify as “green energy,” leading some to resign from the Green Power committee. Other oppose hydropower, which dams up free flowing rivers.

 

 

What can I do to help?

A program called N.C. Green Power allows power consumers to buy blocks of environmentally-friendly power generated on a small scale. The program costs consumers an extra $4 a month on their power bill.

The extra $4 buys consumers a 100-kilowatt block of renewable energy from small, independent power generators that harness energy from solar, wind, water or methane gas. By purchasing blocks of renewable energy, Green Power consumers help to offset pollution and promote greener alternatives to coal, oil and nuclear power.

Consumers aren’t guaranteed the block of green power they buy actually ends up on their doorstep. But consumers know that thanks to their contribution, a small independent producer of green power is being compensated for generating environmentally friendly power and putting it on the electric grid for use somewhere by someone.

Over time, the program hopes to reduce demand for coal and nuclear powered energy. To sign up for the program, go to www.ncgreenpower.org or call 919.716.6398.

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