THE METAPHORS it invites are macabre -- the last thing solar energy needs. But there it is, an electricity-generating windmill, standing smack dab in the middle of a Baltimore cemetery.
Literary imagery aside, the cemetery is not the best place for a windmill. Air currents in the city tend to be more turbulent than forceful. And the surrounding trees don't help much.
But Warren Young, the cemetery caretaker, is one of the small minority of energy-conscious people who have helped keep the solar movement alive. He is committed to wind power. He also is probably the only solar advocate in the Baltimore-Washington area committed enough actually to buy a windmill and put it up.
Now the spring breezes that caress budding branches also will turn the windmill prop, sending electricity -- care of Mother Nature -- into Young's nearby house.
Warren Young, like so many who have opted for the solar alternative, is an active energy saver. He installed not only the windmill but several meters with which to monitor its progress. What he will probably find, over the course of a year, is that his windmill is not doing at it could were it located on what is known in the business as "a good wind site."
If it were, he could expect the windmill to satisfy as much as half his annual electricity needs.
Young's is one of the latest in a breed of small-scale wind electricity generators, a 1.5-kilowatt model manufactured by the Enertech Company in Norwich, Vt. While media attention to wind power so far has centered on projects that would made Jules Verne blush, a number of companies have been developing small-scale machines for individual homeowners that could, all things considered, prove as economical as the behemoths still on the drawing boards, says Lou Divone, head of wind systems at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
DOE is spending approximately $15 million a year to develop such machines, primarily in the 2- to 10-kilowatt range, about 25 percent of its wind-energy budget.
Electricity-generating windmills are not entirely new to the American landscape. In the '30s through the middle 1950s, many operated in rural and remote areas where wind was plentiful and other forms of electricity expensive and hard to get. One, built by the Jacobs Wind Electric Company, supplied hundreds of farm owners with 400 to 500 kilowatt-hours a month.
But the Jacobs model was a storage wind system: The electricity its generator produced had to kept in batteries as DC current, then converted into AC current for use in the home. Batteries, which require maintenance and replacement, for many years made windmills prohibitively expensive in most areas.
That has changed.
Thanks to a device called a synchronous converter, windmills can now produce AC current at the source, so that they can be plugged directly into the home. The Enertech model is one AC windmill, as are those being made by such companies as North Wind in Warren, Vt., and Windworks in Mukwonago, Wis. "Plug in" is no exaggeration. The control box hooks up to a standard wall outlet.
That difference has brought the cost for smaller machines down from a typical $10,000 or more to $6,000 or less.
Potential windmill buyers, however, face many of the same problems that have for so long kept sales of other solar equipment down. There is considerable difference of industry opinion, for instance, about how big a system a homeowner should buy. Queries about investment payback provoke responses that are necessarily vague and uncertain. And there are many questions, and potential problems, regarding zoning, safety and utility-company involvement that have yet to be answered.
The AC windmills, because they hook up to local utility grids, have raised questions about rates and restrictions. The current produced by the windmill goes into the home only as it is used.Because it operates constantly, as long as the wind is blowing, any that is left goes back through the lines to the utility. Few of the more than 3,000 utility companies across the country have decided whether meters should be allowed to run backwards, essentially crediting the windmill owner for electricity he produces but does not use. And if they do, how much will the utility pay for that electricity?
"We have seen utilities take different approaches," said Bill Brake, president of Enertech. "Some let it [the meter] run backwards. Some put a ratchet on it. Our approach is to size the system so it doesn't produce more than 50 or 60 percent of the customer's needs."
Other manufacturers, however, are making bigger machines. Windworks, for instance, has a $650,000 contract with DOE to develop a much larger, 8-kilowatt windmill that would, says company president Hans Meyer, produce 25,000 to 30,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, or enough to meet the yearly needs of a typical electrically heated home.
DOE, meanwhile, is in the midst of a national program to place windmills in every state to see how utilities react. "We don't want people to end up with bureaucratic problems," said Divone. "In many states if you were going to buy a wind turbine that hooks up to the utility, you'd find there isn't even an office where you can go to find out what you're supposed to do. There are many problems like that have to be worked out."
Even more perplexing is a question every potential windmill owner must face, and one that can only be answered by on-site inspection and tests. That is whether you have enough wind to make the mill pay for itself.
"There are two key areas in the country to begin marketing," said Meyer. "The New England area, where they have particularly high energy prices. And in the Midwest region around the Great Lakes, where you have high winds and also relatively high energy rates. There are islands off the coast of Maine and in Lake Michigan where they're paying 14 cents to 16 cents per kilowatt-hour because they use diesel generators or have to have power shipped in."
But beyond such generalities, there is the very specific problem of deciding whether particular homes will be able to benefit from a windmill. And even though the DOE is making the most detailed wind maps of the country to date, winds vary not only in the several hundred miles from the Plains states to the Atlantic, but in the few hundred feet from the hilltop into the valley.
The only way to really find out if you have enough wind -- roughly an average of 10 to 12 miles per hour -- is to have your location tested. Windmill dealers who might provide such service are few and far between. Many companies, however, rent meters to record average wind speed. And DOE is working with the Department of Agriculture to make the service available through local extension offices.
Another problem that continues to plague the solar industry is the vexing question of investment payback. The variables are numerous and potential buyers will have to do their homework well.
Not only does the question change acording to the wind map, it is different from state to state, county to county. The federal government includes windmills in its energy tax incentive program. This allows a 30 percent tax credit on the first $2,000 and 20 percent for the next $10,000 or a maximum of $2,200 off your income taxes. (That may change, too. Legislation being considered in Congress would make the credit a flat 40 percent.)
Some states offer further credits. Maryland and Virginia do not. A few local jurisdictions give credits on property taxes. Harford and Anne Arundel Counties in Maryland, for instance, are two of the most progressive. aHarford allows a 100 percent credit against the cost of solar equipment for three years.
Some windmills could pay for themselves in as little as six years, especially for owners in upper tax brackets. Others could take much longer.
In the face of such variables, some manufacturers see rural areas as the most likely candidates for windmill sales. "In an urban area," said Divone, "the number of institutional problems is very large and varies from city to city. In the rural areas, you don't have so many of those problems."
"We now see the machine as being a better marketing potential for agricultural, light industrial and commercial applications," said Meyer. "At present, the incentives for an industrial buyer are better than for a residential buyer."
And few homeowners will likely be immediately tempted by the price tags on Windworks newest machines, expected to go into production in the next month. "The first 10 machines might cost $25,000," said Meyer. "There's no doubt, though, that if we were putting out 1,000, the cost would come down to $10,000 or $12,000."