York County feels the winds of change

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October 6, 2009

1:23 AM

The York County Planning Committee held a work session Sept. 30 to discuss whether York County residents should create zoning ordinances that would allow wind turbines in residential neighborhoods. The issue arose because four neighborhoods possess the necessary wind conditions, and a few constituents posed the question. This would be a positive step toward self-sufficiency, not only for York County, but for the United States, as well as a benefit to the environment and the family wallet.

You might wonder why the debate arose, considering the money-saving possibilities of the environmentally sound energy alternative; but there are some initial drawbacks to wind power. The biggest drawback is price: windmills have a substantial start-up cost and up to this point, at least in York County, the idea of a middle-class family purchasing one seemed completely out of the question. Now that the issue has been raised, the planning committee is hesitant to set a precedent on residential wind turbines because no ordinances are currently in place in the region. Also, neighbors may be concerned about the noise pollution factor, though residential turbines should produce minimal noise on par with the whirring of a refrigerator.

A concern for bird safety has also been presented with respect to turbines. While large wind farms in certain areas can potentially affect local bird populations, electric lines pose more of a threat to birds than do residential turbines.

Surprisingly, Suffolk and Virginia Beach already have ordinances regarding residential wind turbines. Suffolk limits them to 120 feet, and Virginia Beach places no restrictions, given that you apply for a special-use permit. But what is the prevalence of residential turbines? The demand in the United States for small turbines grew 78 percent in 2008, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Debate continues over how economical they really are. It can take a decade or more for a wind turbine to make up its start-up cost of $6,000 to $22,000; however, a turbine can reduce a home’s electricity bill by an average of 50 to 90 percent. The increasing demand for residential turbines clearly shows that whether or not they are the best energy option, local planning committees should be taking steps to make alternative energy available at the residential level while the federal government struggles with the national energy predicament.

This could be a unique opportunity for Virginians to embark on a mission to reduce their energy consumption and make the transition to sustainable energy. Although the initial investment is substantial, the benefits outweigh the cost. According to the AWEA, a small residential wind turbine can offset approximately 1.2 tons of air pollutants and 200 tons of greenhouse gases throughout its lifetime, which averages 20 to 25 years. In addition to leading the green movement in the United States, Virginians who install residential turbines can contribute to the increasing demand, creating a ripple effect of consumerism.

Increased demand has always served to encourage manufacturers to research more and to lower prices in order to appeal to a wider market. By buying, you could propel the movement.

E-mail Allegra Silcox at ajsilcox@wm.edu.

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