The Cost of Energy

Renewable and Affordable

Green Answers, Blowing in the Wind

Across the river from a massive coal-fired power plant near their Charles County home, Ken Robinson and Sheryl Elliott installed the first Southern Maryland residential wind turbine Wednesday in front of a crowd of friends and students from Dr. Thomas L. Higdon Elementary School's Green Club. Video by Anna Uhls/
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

As smoke rose from the power plant just across Cuckold Creek, one of the first residential windmills in Maryland began providing the Elliott-Robinson home with a greener source of electricity yesterday.

The couple spent $23,000 to put up a personal windmill in their back yard, which will decrease their dependence on the traditional power grid and the power plant whose smokestacks loom over their home in Charles County.

For Maryland residents who can't afford a personal windmill or don't live on one of the windiest sites in the state, a cheaper and more convenient option for using wind power also became available yesterday.

For the first time, 1.73 million Baltimore Gas and Electric and Pepco customers in Maryland can lower their electric bills by buying renewable energy credits through the Rockville-based company Clean Currents. The company has offered the credits for almost three years but always at a premium over regular utility rates.

"Usually renewable energy requires an upfront investment, but we're in a unique situation where you can choose green power and save money at the same time," said Gary Skulnik, Clean Currents' president. "It almost never happens."

The decreased rates are the result of a steady decline in wholesale energy prices. Utility companies set their customers' rates periodically and have not reduced them to reflect the lower prices they are now paying for energy to produce electricity. But Clean Currents and other companies have taken advantage of the downturn in the price and are offering residents as much as two years of power for 10 to 15 percent less than the utilities' summer rates. They use some of their revenue to promote wind farms and the use of wind power.

Clean Currents also sells wind power credits to District residents, but they pay a slight premium above traditional Pepco rates.

Robert Dobkin, a spokesman for Pepco, said the alternative offered by Clean Currents is what choice is all about. But he cautioned that renewable energy companies have run into financial trouble in the past and have been forced to cut their programs.

The electricity is generated by wind-powered turbines across the country, primarily in Texas, and sent east on the mid-Atlantic electric grid. About 2,500 residents and businesses signed up for the company's service before the price cut, and Skulnik said he expects that number to increase dramatically.

"There's no cost to you, you don't have to install any equipment and it takes less than five minutes on a Web site," Skulnik said. "There's no excuse not to do it."

Carlos Fernandez-Bueno, who sold Ken Robinson and Sheryl Elliott their windmill, said renewable energy credits make sense for most residents. Robinson has fought the owners of the power plant across the creek for years, and he wanted the satisfaction of providing his electricity. During the winter, the 33-foot-tall windmill will provide more electricity than his home can use, so his meter will run backward and the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative will issue him a credit.

Fernandez-Bueno sold 85 windmills last year but none in Maryland, where most counties don't have specific permitting processes for them. It took Robinson 18 months to secure the permits for his, mainly because nobody had ever tried to build a windmill in Charles and the zoning board didn't have a proper application form.

Yesterday, the mess was a distant memory for the couple, who threw a party to celebrate their success and their 40 percent overall reduction in dependence on the power grid. With a crowd of almost 200 cheering wildly, a draft horse set in motion the pulley system that raised the windmill. Screws were tightened, an elementary-schooler pushed a button and the blades began twirling.

"Look how fast it's going!" Elliott exclaimed as the device gained momentum. "My heart is pumping; I feel like a little kid!"

In some areas of the country, homeowners who want to build windmills have faced opposition from neighbors who object to the noise or aesthetics, but Robinson and Elliott's neighbors celebrated with them.

"My only problem with it is that I'm jealous," said Julie Klingenstein, who lives up the street. "Maybe they'll share some of their electricity with all that money they're saving."

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