Turbines slowly enter Kenai Peninsula landscape

Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Gene Palm awaits a storm. He's begging for one, really.

M. Scott Moon
M. Scott Moon
Debbie and Gene Palm stand on the stairs to their Nikiski home with their new wind turbine at their backs. They said watching the unit generate power has made them more aware of the power they consume.

He points his long finger at the anemometer that sits on a counter in his circular bluff-front home in Nikiski.

He bought the anemometer, which measures wind speed, at the end of December before deciding to put up the wind turbine, which went up last month, in his back yard.

The device reads 17.7 miles per hour. Fairly strong, but Palm wants more. A nice 30-mile per hour gust would be ideal. Then he'd really be seeing some return on his investment.

"I look at it like a run of fishing," Palm said of the hope for a big storm.

Coincidentally or not, it was mostly because Palm was part of a fishing business that he was able to fund the 49-foot, 1,300-pound turbine that's now planted on his property.

As a claimant on the class action lawsuit as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, Palm and his wife, Debbie, could afford the $41,000 6kW Proven Energy generator. They also got the help of a USDA grant that covered 25 percent of the project.

Palm doesn't view his turbine as an attack on the energy resource that caused massive problems in 1989 and is now devastating the Gulf Coast. He simply sees it as another alternative.

"I just think we should be capable of tradeoff, and that includes energy," Palm said. "I look at it like hunting or like growing your own veggies."

At the start of the day on June 11, the turbine had spun enough times in its three-week lifetime to generate 95 kilowatt hours of power. An average home runs on about 500 to 700 kWh per month.

Palm has a Homer Electric Association meter that keeps count of the turbine's stored energy because every excess kilowatt hour of power it can produce per month translates into HEA credit.

So far, it hasn't been too lucrative. Palm estimates his home takes about 1,500 kWh per month to run. Last month his credit from the generator barely topped $10.

Still, Palm's addicted to the new energy source. He has figured out how much wind translates into how much power.

"If it's blowing at 15 miles an hour that's 1 kilowatt. At 20 it's producing two and at 24 it doesn't double, it's squared. It's producing four," Palm explained with increasing velocity.

When he sees the 17-mile per hour reading on the anemometer, Palm gets antsy to run downstairs to check the HEA meter.

From the Palm's deck, which sits a stone's throw from the turbine, the generator sounds like a distant helicopter flying above. It isn't much louder than the noise of the wind blowing through the trees.

As Palm heads toward the door, the family's Yorkshire terrier, Pip, who has recently given birth to two puppies, chases him and pleads to go outside. But Pip isn't allowed to come.

Palm turns down the spiral staircase outside his home and lands at the base, where he sees the meter.

"It's crazy. I check this thing every morning," Palm says. To his delight, it reads 96 kWh. That's one more than earlier.

"Each kilowatt hour is like giving birth to a puppy," Palm joked. Though the comparison doesn't quite equate, it shows Palm's level of emotional attachment to capturing the wind's energy. "Before I had looked at a kilowatt as almost a nominal unit of power."

In truth, increased awareness, not tremendous energy harvesting, has been the turbine's biggest asset.

"It's almost life changing. It's opened my eyes," Palm said. "I'm turning lights off, I'm unplugging vehicles. I'm just much more conscious."

Palm hopes turbines will eventually drop in price so they can become part of the societal norm rather than the exception.

While turbines aren't yet the norm on the Kenai Peninsula, 47 sites are scheduled to put at least one up this summer, according to Nadia Daggett, manager of operations at Alaska Wind Industries.

"Last (summer) we did a little over 30," Daggett said. Businesses and people interested in erecting a turbine should first have their property assessed and then get in contact with Alaska Wind Industries, according to Daggett. Grants are often available to help ease the financial burden of the initial investment.

Dan Krogseng will see a Proven 6kW turbine erected on his property in the next couple of days.

"We're at the point where we need to watch what we do in terms of the environment," Krogseng said. "I hope it gets to the point where it's a little more user friendly. It will just be kind of a snowball effect and hopefully we'll see them on every block."

For now, turbines remain a fairly expensive novelty. Palm compares them, somewhat, to big-screen TVs - once a pricey toy, now almost an American staple.

In Palm's case, monitoring the turbine is almost as entertaining as watching one of the two flat-screen televisions that fill his open living room.

Later in the day on June 11, Palm sent an e-mail clarifying some information he had shared. And he couldn't help close this way:

"Also, since you MUST be interested :) , since you left we've picked up three new KWs," Palm said. "Aren't they cute?"

Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulalcarion.co

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