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Wind Power's Energetic Fans

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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

After years of battling the owners of the massive coal-fired power plant near his Charles County home, Ken Robinson decided that he wanted to reduce his dependence on their electricity. Now, he's taking a most unusual step.

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Pending two more layers of approval, Robinson, 52, plans to install a 33-foot-tall wind turbine in his back yard, paying upwards of $20,000 to construct his own source of energy. The move could result in a huge saving on his electricity bill as well as the satisfaction of relying less on global energy company Mirant, which he says is causing significant environmental damage.

Last week, the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative approved Robinson's request to build a wind turbine to provide electricity for his home in Swan Point, near the southern tip of Charles. If the county zoning board and the state's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission decide that the turbine does not violate local ordinances or environmental protection laws, Robinson will begin operating the first personal-use windmill in Southern Maryland and one of only a handful statewide.

Although he would not go off Mirant's grid completely -- most of his electricity would still come from traditional power lines -- between 25 and 40 percent of his power would be produced from a white three-spoked Skystream that would convert wind to energy in a 220-volt line buried in his yard.

"We've still got a ways to go before there's a windmill up and running, but we're getting there," Robinson said on the grassy site where the structure would sit. "I can't for the life of me imagine why it would be turned down."

A spokesman for the cooperative said it has no problem with Robinson's plan.

"Our message is that we support renewable energy," spokesman Tom Dennison said. "There is a definite move toward renewables, and if people want to do that, we will facilitate these things."

Robinson's plan is the latest example of area residents taking matters into their own hands as their utility bills climb. Sales of solar panels have greatly risen as governments have offered rebates and tax credits, and more people report turning off their air conditioners to cut costs and reduce their carbon footprint.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) recently presented a plan to join local governments and the University of Maryland in a commitment to buy wind power and other renewable energy as the state moves to overhaul its electricity system.

Yet the scale of Robinson's windmill proposal, combined with the fact that it would sit in the shadow of one of the Washington area's largest coal-fired power plants, makes it one of the most audacious steps in the region.

Robinson, who owns a multimedia production firm in Washington and lives primarily in Georgetown during the week, has had a contentious relationship with Mirant for most of the seven years he has owned the house at Swan Point, a community of large waterfront homes that can sell for upwards of $1 million. As president of the Swan Point Property Owners Association, he has fought a planned expansion at the facility and protested Mirant's environmental record. He operates a Web site, http://www.stopmirant.com, that serves as a watchdog of the company's activities in the region.

Through his research on Mirant, he learned of homeowners producing up to 80 percent of their electricity with wind energy. He concluded that his lot, between the Potomac River and Cuckold Creek, is windy enough to generate a significant percentage of the electricity needed for his 3,000-square-foot, three-bedroom home, which requires an average of about 12 mph. From the spot where Robinson and his wife, Sheryl Elliott, plan to build their windmill, just past their private beach and tiki bar, visitors can see Mirant's twin 700-foot-tall smokestacks belching thick, black smoke.


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