CURWOOD: The force of the wind is the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in the world. Most of the growth is in Europe. And here in the U.S., some large-scale wind power projects are also underway. More and more private consumers are also becoming interested in windmills, but as Nina Keck reports, many states, including Vermont, are not yet willing or able to pay for incentives to promote small-scale wind power.
KECK: Tucked amidst the rolling hills, farms, and costly homes of Charlotte, Vermont, is a lone windmill. Its three blades hum rhythmically as they turn in the breeze.
KECK: The windmill belongs to David Blittersdorf. Blittersdorf is president of NRG Systems, a Vermont-based company that makes wind-measuring devices. Blittersdorf says renewable energy is all about power generated in your own back yard. He installed the turbine and several solar panels to prove his point. The equipment saves him between $60 and $70 a month, and he says it shows that clean energy sources are a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
BLITTERSDORF: Every time I see a windmill around, I get excited. It's -- it's a great feeling to see the blades going through the air and the swishing sound, and knowing that electricity is being generated, all from just the invisible air going by.
KECK: Not everyone is as enthusiastic. Several of Blittersdorf's neighbors were less than thrilled when they learned of his plans to install the 80-foot turbine. Some even took legal action to fight it, worried about how it would look and the noise it would generate. David Blittersdorf says communities should always have a public means to voice their concerns. But, he says, the permitting process in Vermont is unnecessarily cumbersome.
BLITTERSDORF: You submit a nine-page application to the Public Service Board. You have to notify all your neighbors that are abutting. You have to notify the Town Select Board, the town zoning people, the Agency of Natural Resources, the Department of Public Service, and the Public Service Board themselves. And then that just starts the process.
KECK: In the end, Blittersdorf says it took almost a year and $5,000 in legal fees to get approval for his windmill. That's on top of the $30,000 he spent to purchase and install it. He says people won't give wind energy a try until it's more affordable and user-friendly. So, he's been lobbying state lawmakers and regulators to streamline the permitting process and offer hefty tax rebates to people who use renewable energy sources. Scutter Parker is the director of the Energy Efficiency Division of the Vermont Department of Public Service. He says Vermont is encouraging renewable energy systems. But he says it's new territory, and simply paring down regulations isn't the answer.
PARKER: One of the important things to do is to develop consistent standards so that people planning for wind installations know what the rules are, that communities can reach a consensus about where it's good to have wind sited, and where they really want to encourage and promote wind installations as a part of moving to a renewable energy future.
KECK: Parker says his office hopes to complete a study this year to help communities develop clear guidelines for placing wind turbines. As far as making wind energy more affordable for consumers, a bill is currently being proposed in the Vermont legislature that would provide up to a 60 percent tax credit for installing wind, geothermal, or solar equipment. David Blittersdorf estimates the credit would cost the state $34.5 million over ten years. But he says the measure would stimulate more than $105 million in equipment sales in Vermont, and create more than 400 jobs. Lawmakers point out that with the current budget, it's not likely that such an expensive proposal will be approved this year. Blittersdorf says if the state truly wants to promote renewable energy, it has to put its money where its mouth is.
BLITTERSDORF: We're exporting a billion dollars of Vermonters' money outside the state right now for energy per year. If oil costs go up, natural gas prices go up, like they're going up, in a few years it may be two billion dollars a year. That's a lot of dollars, considering we only have about 650,000 people in the state.
KECK: Rhode Island and North Carolina offer tax incentives for using renewable energy. Other states go even further. California and Illinois, for example, pay for 50 percent of purchase, permitting, and installation costs. New Jersey now pays for 60 percent of those costs. John Zimmerman, a Vermont-based consultant who develops commercial wind sites, says that publicly-funded incentives are important to stimulate the market. But, he says, they create controversial policy questions.
ZIMMERMAN: The questions here in Vermont will be, should money be directed toward the residential scale development, where homeowners can install them on their own property, or would you get more bang for the buck by putting the wind turbines up on mountaintops where the winds are stronger in a commercial application, and the technology will operate more cost-effectively?
KECK: Scutter Parker of the Vermont Department of Public Service says ideally, the state should support both large- and small-scale wind power.
PARKER: In Vermont, for instance, we've lowered, over the last ten years, the number of kilowatt hours the average home in Vermont uses by a thousand kilowatt hours a year. If we could get, with renewable energy, an increased efficiency to the point where new homes added little or nothing to the demand on the energy system, wouldn't that be a good outcome?
KECK: But promoting windpower in Vermont in any fiscal way may take awhile. The state currently has an energy contract with Hydro Quebec until 2017. Since Canada provides a major portion of Vermont's energy, there is not the pressing need to develop renewable sources, and no state budget for it. Vermont has approved something called net metering, which allows people who use renewable energy sources to plug into the power grid and get credit for any excess power they produce. But wind energy experts say until power costs go up dramatically in Vermont, the number of windmills in the Green Mountains will remain low. For Living on Earth, I'm Nina Keck in Charlotte, Vermont.
CURWOOD: Coming up: A good solution for a bad situation. Changing trash into prostheses for bodies broken by land mines.
First, this environmental health note from Maggie Villiger.
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