By: James Dutton, Adam King and Catrina Sedgwick
When Barbara Broxterman and her husband decided they wanted to improve the energy efficiency of their farm, they considered several alternative energy sources before deciding on wind power. Four years ago, they installed a 33-foot tall wind turbine for $40,000. The three 15-foot blades generate 3.7 kilowatts per hour, which produces about 30 percent of their total electricity usage.
“This will pay out in about 12 to 14 years and then it will be just free energy after that,” said Broxterman, whose farm is located in Garards Fort, PA, near the West Virginia border. “If we are generating more than we are using, it goes back out on to the grid.”
While some Pennsylvania residents like the Broxtermans are experimenting with wind power, this form of renewable energy has yet to see much traction in West Virginia because of the region’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. At the moment West Virginia has 327 wind turbines compared to 720 in neighboring Pennsylvania.
“The coal folks have a very strong lobby in West Virginia,” says Vernon Halton, Executive Director of Coal River Mountain Watch, a non-profit organization that wants to put a wind farm on the mountain in southern West Virginia. “In fact they walk around [the Capitol] like they own the place, and that is because they do.”
Despite the dominance of coal power in West Virginia, many Americans recognize that they will have to shift from a reliance on pollution-heavy fossil fuels to renewable sources in order to cut down on global warming and protect water and air quality. And some state officials recognize that as well. In June 2009, West Virginia passed an Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard requiring investor-owned utilities with more than 30,000 residential customers to supply 25 percent of electric retail sales from alternative and renewable energy resources by 2025.
Yet wind energy was dealt a nationwide blow when Congress allowed a tax credit for wind energy to expire, called the Production Tax Credit, to expire on December 31 of last year. The tax credit’s purpose was to give incentive payments of 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by wind, to those who produced the energy.
Justin Williams, a wind turbine technician for Vestas Wind Systems, says the failure to renew the Production Tax Credit was a major blow to the wind industry because developers relied heavily on this tax credit to help offset the expensive start-up costs of wind turbines.
“With the [tax credit] not getting extended for another year, it really hurt the wind industry,” Williams said. “A lot of projects got put on hold. It was a big tax break for these guys. It’s kind of what helped them get the financing to build these sites.”
Williams says it takes at least four years to build a turbine from start to finish. “It’s a big investment, with all the money up front. You don’t start making money off a wind turbine until at least ten years later,” he adds. That’s why a lot of people relied on the [tax credit].”
Of course, like every energy source, wind power has some drawbacks. According to Williams, wind turbines can be quite noisy, though not everyone sees that as an issue. Barbara Broxterman actually likes the low-pitched hum and marginal ground turbulence produced by her mini-turbine.
“Because you always hear it, you’re very much aware of your energy,” says Barbara Broxterman. “I think we have really cut down on making sure lights are out and other stuff because that’s just money wasted. It really does change your perception on using energy.”
Industry-standard turbines for land use are a good deal bigger than the Broxtermans’ machine, with heights between 250 and 300 feet. These turbines emit about 43 decibels at 300 meters (or 328 yards) away, which is akin to the noise from an average air conditioner, according to a recent blog. Up close, the turbines sound like a lawn mower, but state law requires industry-standard turbines to be sited at least 300 meters away from residential areas.
While the mountainous topography of West Virginia is ideally suited for wind energy, Halton says the recent surge of mountain top mining in the southern part of the state, which removes the top of mountains and lowers elevation, makes it more difficult to install effective wind turbines.
“If you lower the mountain, you remove the wind source,” Halton says. “Mountain top removal generally lowers the elevation of the mountain by 600 to 800 feet. Also, you don’t have the same stable bedrock that you did before.”
Halton says that enough elevation remains on Coal River Mountain to install a wind farm with as many as 220 turbines, generating a total of 440 megawatts. Building those turbines would be a major boost to the local economy, he says.
“It would bring in about $ 1.73 million per year to the county,” Halton says. He adds that it could also provide more stable jobs to the region.
Despite the ongoing political battle between coal and wind in West Virginia, Williams predicts that wind power will continue to grow — in this region and throughout the nation.
“A lot of people are going with wind because it is a lot safer [for the environment],” says Williams. “You have the big initial investment but you’re not spending anything to make power. You’re just waiting on wind. The sky is the limit.”