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Blowin' in the Wind: New small-wind power business could open up another green industry in Deschutes County 

Abney Solar Electrix is still installing solar power for rural residents. But instead of powering a small battery, Abney's systems power whole homes and businesses.

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Dean Abney started his sustainable energy career more than three decades ago installing small inverter systems in rural eastern Oregon. The modest units powered television repeaters that he and his father were licensed to install, bringing network television to ranchers whose children were clamoring to watch the Brady Bunch and other shows. Back then there was no DirectTV, and certainly no cable television or Internet. Abney's repeaters were a lifeline to the outside world in remote places like Harney and Wasco counties.

Fast forward four decades and Abney who owns Abney Solar Electrix is still installing solar power for rural residents. But instead of powering a small battery, Abney's systems power whole homes and businesses. While the solar business has been steady, thanks to some of the generous state and federal tax breaks designed to spur investment in green energy development, it's another aspect of the renewable energy business that's held Abney's interest as of late - wind power. Over the past six months, Abney and other wind power advocates have been working with Deschutes County planning staff to revamp the county's rules regarding small-scale wind power installations. Like several others involved in the discussion, Abney has a financial stake in the outcome. He's been installing small wind power systems, mostly under 10 kilowatts, for years, but all that work has been outside of Deschutes County because of the county's restrictive rules on wind power development, which limit structures like wind turbines to 30 feet, well below the height required to efficiently produce electricity from wind.

"With wind power it's a proven fact that power increases exponentially the higher you go up, and I can't help but deal with basic physics," Abney said during a recent interview from his Redmond office.

While the county has yet to formally adopt a change to its height ordinance, the county commission has already recommended a draft rule that will make it easier for installers and customers to tap into wind energy. County commissioners who will make the final determination about the future of wind power locally are expected to take up the matter in the next few weeks and could have a new standard in place by early summer.

In contrast to the massive wind installations that have popped in the Columbia Gorge and other areas of eastern Oregon, the technology at the center of the current discussion is designed to power a single residence or business. But even those modest systems require at least 60 feet of clearance from the top of nearby structures to qualify for incentives through the Oregon Energy Trust program, which for many customers can tilt the balance for or against a wind power project. While both the state and federal government provide tax credits for wind installations, the Energy Trust has a two-year old program that helps offset the immediate cost of installation, one of the biggest barriers for most residential customers - particularly in a recession. Last year, the Energy Trust handed out more than $275,000 to new wind power customers, said Lizzie Rubado who oversees the agency's small-wind program.

Not everyone qualifies for the program. Because of how the funding mechanism for the program was developed, wind power consumers must be a Pacific Power or Pacific Gas and Electric customer to participate. There are other restrictions, too. Customers must be in an area where wind speeds have been clocked at an average 10mph, at a minimum. (To make things easier for prospective wind power customers, the Energy Trust provides a map of areas that qualify on its website, Those who do qualify are eligible for a rebate that currently ranges between $4,500 for the smallest system (roughly one kilowatt) and $40,000 for the larger systems that range between 15kw and 20kw.

While the small-wind industry still pales in comparison to solar power, it's a growing market. According to Rubado, the Energy Trust helped fund seven wind installations in 2009. That number grew to 14 installations last year. This year, the Energy Trust has paid out four rebates already and is in the process of qualifying roughly another dozen, Rubado said.

However, she said those installations represent only a fraction of the total wind power development across the state since the data doesn't include customers outside of the PG&E and Pacific Power service areas. In addition, there are likely dozens of non-grid tied systems that are used to directly power homes and businesses.

If commissioners adopt the new less-restrictive criteria that do away with the height limits, Abney said he forecasts a steady stream of new customers in Deschutes County. Under the proposed rules, wind systems higher than 35 feet would have to be setback from adjacent properties at a distance equal or greater to the height of the turbine as measured to the top of the blade. (a 150-foot turbine, would require a 150-foot setback from the property line.) At the moment, Abney said he has three potential customers in Deschutes who are inquiring about wind power and another who is "ready to go." If that's any indication of the demand, Abney said he would be looking to add another installer to his small business.

Deschutes County Planner Peter Gutowsky said that kind of economic and business information is something that he and other county officials are taking into consideration as they mull over the new ordinance.

For Abney the whole discussion is, of course, a no-brainer.

"The energy is up there. Mother Nature gives us the energy, but it's up to us whether we use it or not," he said.

Small Wind

15 Percent

The annual growth in U.S.
small-wind power
production in 2009

100 Megawatts

The total energy capacity
of small-wind
projects in the U.S.

$82 Million

Total U.S. small-wind
sales for 2009

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