Local Company Chases Down Wind Power Approval

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — Some people chase storms. Tim Hetland chases wind turbines.

It’s easier and certainly less dangerous, but it is awkward.

“Pulling into someone’s driveway, walking up to the front steps and knocking on the door so I can ask them about their wind turbine is a little unusual,” Hetland admitted. “But most people invite me for a cup of coffee, and we talk.”

Winter is the ideal time to chase wind turbines, because leaves and other vegetation can’t hide their whereabouts. And, “there’s more out there than people think,” Hetland said. Many of the ones he finds were erected during the energy crisis of the 1970s. Most are still working fine; others that have exceeded their usefulness, he has helped take down.

Hetland has discovered wind turbines in nearby Jamestown and Little Compton that he had no idea existed. The affable Middletown resident soon was knocking on the doors of these unknown Newport County neighbors to introduce himself and, more importantly, talk about their renewable energy devices.

He tags all his discoveries on Google Earth.

Hetland, a self-described “techno geek,” has been fascinated with renewable energy, especially wind and solar, for some time. He’s had solar panels on his home for 20 years and his property features a small wind turbine.

His dream is one day to be totally off the grid. For now, though, he’s concentrating on getting Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities to adopt wind ordinances. It hasn’t been easy.

“In many of these towns there is no wind ordinance, so wind turbines aren’t allowed. You have to get a special-use permit,” Hetland said. “And since there are no set rules or statutes, it makes it difficult to get permission to put up a wind turbine, and I’m not talking about ones the size of the 1.5-megawatt turbine at Portsmouth High School.”

Three years ago, Hetland, tired of installing “a lot of dirty things,” such as oil burners, left the plumbing and heating business after two decades and created Rhode Island Wind Power Inc. The two-person business on Aquidneck Avenue was founded with the idea of helping homeowners, small businesses, farmers, nurseries and schools achieve energy independence.

The company also helps its clients secure rebates and tax incentives — both state and federal — and manages the wind turbine’s connection to the utility grid provider.

Rhode Island, with an average wind speed of 10 to 12 mph, is not only one of the best places in the country, but it’s also one of the best spots in world for wind power, said Charlie Roberts, the company’s vice president for sales and marketing.

Harnessing that energy, however, is not an easy process to navigate, at least when it comes to dealing with local boards and committees, according to Roberts.

“Municipalities got burned before with cell-phone towers, so few towns have passed ordinances that deal with installing wind turbines,” he said.

Charlestown and Middletown are among the few municipalities that have passed some type of wind ordinance, and they both did so recently. Hetland and Roberts are currently working with a client to get a special-use permit for a small wind turbine in Coventry.

It’s also the type of work that doesn’t pay the bills. “A lot of our work is free work,” said Roberts, a New York native. “It’s not billable.”

Their non-billable work includes attending numerous planning board and zoning board meetings and talking with state and local officials. They run into plenty of resistance.

“They think we want to do the whole landscape in megawatt turbines,” Hetland said.

Hetland understands some of the resistance — even though he downplays overstated concerns associated wind turbines, such as they ruin scenic landscapes, kill lots of birds and generate excessive amounts of electromagnetic energy — but is bewildered by the amount of effort it takes just to speak with municipal officials about siting a small wind turbine.

“We survive on electrical products,” he said. “It’s hard to go backwards; nobody’s getting rid of their microwaves. Yet, we have to fight with these people just to be heard.”

Rhode Island Wind Power specializes in wind turbines that range from 1 to 30 kilowatts, with the higher end more suitable for farms and schools. “Homeowners should stick with a turbine that is between one and fifteen kilowatts,” Roberts said. “Anything above that would be too big for most homes.”

There are about 150 turbines on the market, according to Roberts, but Rhode Island Wind Power has focused on four it believes often the best value — the Windspire by Mariah Power, Bergey Wind Turbines, Raum Energy and Proven Energy.

These turbines range in price from $11,000 to $22,000, fully installed, and can cost up to $100,000. These pole-mounted turbines stand 30 to 140 feet tall, depending on location, and they run “library quiet.” They all also can supply about a quarter of an average home’s energy needs, Roberts said.

“You have to be cautious of what is out there,” Hetland said. “There is a huge amount of junk out there.”

Last fall, Rhode Island Wind Power sold the New England Institute of Technology, in Warwick, a 60-foot-tall, 1-kilowatt Bergey wind turbine. Another Bergey sits on Rose Island — and has been tagged on Google Earth by Hetland, although he didn’t have to knock on the island’s lighthouse door.

The company’s favorite turbine, Mariah Power’s Windspire — a propeller-free turbine that generates power when the wind blows against its vertical airfoils — was designed for urban settings.

Both Roberts and Hetland envision a row of these Windspires installed in the median of Memorial Boulevard, by Easton’s Beach in Newport, that would power the nearby streetlights.

While the company — which was incorporated only a month ago and added its second employee, Roberts, just last summer — spends most of its time trying to get officials to embrace the idea of renewable wind energy, rather than push it away, it has discovered the power of energy.

“You’d be amazed at how much electricity people can blow through,” Roberts said.