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Wind of change blows slow at HEA

Co-op not against turbines, solar panels, but not ready to facilitate their use, either

Posted: Monday, March 19, 2007

One response to increasing energy costs has blown onto the Kenai Peninsula, but for now, its arrival appears premature.

Philip St. John, owner of Midnight LLC Construction, has installed a 70-foot-tall wind turbine for a customer in Nikiski, hoping to capture peninsula wind and convert it to electricity.

The problem is, Homer Electric Association isn’t ready to receive the help.

The concept as envisioned by St. John is that the Skystream 3.7 wind turbine will capture the wind, convert it into electricity to supplement the homeowner’s power purchased from HEA, and sell any surplus electricity back to HEA.

HEA is all in favor of renewable energy, according to spokesperson Joe Gallagher, who points to the Bradley Lake generating station, which employs hydroelectric power. He also said HEA is a member of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP), which is “looking at the Fire Island Project ... a large source of wind power.”

The utility and its members, however, must be protected from possible damage to the system caused by outsiders hoping to connect wind turbines, solar panels and small generators to the HEA power grid.

St. John said he installed the $12,000 wind turbine for his customer after receiving a 20-page application from HEA and complying with all of the utility’s requirements, but “The HEA bureaucracy is not moving and not allowing us to use the turbine.

“HEA said, ‘We don’t know how to handle it. We’ll look into it,’” St. John said.

That was in August.

Brad Hibberd, manager of distribution and engineering services for HEA, said he presented a draft of an interconnections policy Thursday to the association’s management staff.

“It is new technology and we need to be sure all the faults are cleared,” Hibberd said. “It’s best to move forward cautiously.”

By clearing the faults, Hibberd was referring to electrical faults along HEA’s power distribution lines.

“If there’s a problem on our distribution system, we want the generator to not feed into that fault,” Hibberd said. “We want to be sure there’s a disconnect switch on the line.”

That safeguards Homer Electric’s members, as well as any HEA employees who might be working on the distribution system.

St. John said the Skystream 3.7 turbine is approved by Underwriters Lab for on-grid hookup, but Hibberd said having a UL test rating isn’t good enough for HEA.

As part of Hibberd’s draft policy, he said he suggested people desiring to connect to the grid be required to have their installations performance tested by a certified engineering firm. The inspection and test would be done at the member’s expense.

Currently he is not aware of any such firms on the Kenai Peninsula qualified to perform the work. One would need to travel down from Anchorage. Hibberd did not have a ballpark guess at what that would cost.

St. John said his company is a licensed, bonded and insured general contractor, and he has installed two wind turbines and a solar panel at his own home on Kalgin Island. That home admittedly is not on the HEA grid, and St. John said the home is 90 percent self-sufficient in terms of energy.

He is in partnership with Vincent Bryant, a builder who specializes in log homes.

At $12,000 per installation, St. John said customers are more interested in helping the environment than they are in saving money.

The wind turbine will generate about 300 kilowatt hours per month, he said, and the average home uses about 500 to 600.

If any surplus electricity were generated, it could possibly be sold to HEA.

Hibberd said the utility sells power at the retail rate of about 14.5 cents per kilowatt hour, and purchases power at the wholesale rate of 5.8 cents.

St. John said he would like to see HEA pay a bit more to encourage people to consider renewable energy sources. He said some states also subsidize installation of equipment including wind turbines and solar panels. Alaska does not.

Gallagher said HEA is “definitely interested in alternate energy. We’re there to answer their questions.”

Hibberd said the utility -- once it OKs the interconnections policy -- will need to produce a certificate for members who wish to install supplemental electric-generating equipment, solicit bids from engineering firms willing to perform the testing and prepare training for HEA employees.

He said he sees actual permitting at least one month to 1 1/2 months out.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.



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