In My Backyard: Wind Power In Marin County
Driving up the steep gravel road leading up to the Stubbs Vineyard on the northern fringes of Marin County near Marshall, I squinted to see a tiny wind turbine spinning furiously way up at the top of hill, virtually invisible from the nearest road.
Along with 1 kilowatt Southwest Windpower wind turbine the Stubbs’ rely upon less than 1 kW of solar photovoltaics and a bio-diesel back up generator for all of their electricity needs. Because the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) grid is a mile away from either side of their property, the Stubbs live “off-the-grid” and are likely the greenest vineyard in all of California.
“We probably use 5 to 10 percent of the energy of your average American household,” said Tom Stubbs, who freely acknowledged that life on his specially designated “alternative energy home” was not easy. “Our best time for wind power production is spring,” he said. “Our energy supplies are at their lowest in winter, and I become a bit of a tyrant with our children, following behind them turning off lights,” he said.
Mary and Tom Stubbs moved to this property 15 years ago, and then planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in 1996. At present, they are the only certified organic vineyard in Marin County. Plans for a new vineyard and tasting room may require them to add another wind turbine and more solar panels. And they might finally connect to the PG&E grid, though Stubbs is tortured by that prospect.
“I like the independent aspect of not being beholden to anybody.” Just the same, if he was connected to the grid, he could take advantage of a program called “net metering” which would allow him to send the energy he cannot use back to the grid, and draw from the grid when his on-site power sources stopped producing due to a lack of wind or sun.
Given that Marin County is currently considering moving forward with a state authorized program called “Community Choice Aggregation” that would allow the County to get the majority of its electricity from renewable resources, Stubbs is keenly aware of the pros and cons of both of wind and sun. “At good sites, there is plenty of wind, but I think Marin County lends itself better to solar energy. It doesn’t offend anybody.”
Stubbs’ comments were a reference to the nearby McEvoy organic olive farm, whose proposal for a 660 kilowatt wind turbine was shot down by the County Planning Commission in 2006. A revised proposal put together by Tom Williard, principal with Sustainergy Systems, now features a 225-kilowatt wind turbine and was unanimously approved by the County Board of Supervisors this past January. Willard expects the turbine to be in the ground in early 2008.
Luckily, a state rebate between $300,000 to $350,000 will help cover about half of the wind project’s total costs. “We have had five years of legal wrangling, with many lawyers knocking over hurdle after hurdle to this project,” he explained, noting that pioneer green energy projects often cost more than expected.
The only place that has “outstanding” wind resources in Marin County is in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a location where support for wind power could be an uphill climb. There are locations throughout the county, nevertheless, that could support “small wind turbines,” a category that refers to machines less than 100 kilowatts in size, and which typically are 10 kilowatts or less. “Unless you are a geek, and want to tinker with your turbine two or three times a year, small wind is not too appealing of an option for the vast majority of people,” concluded Williard.
Mark Pasternak of Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio is the most bullish on local wind power. He purchased a 35 kilowatt V-15 wind turbine about two years ago. Like Stubbs, Pasternak first lived “off-the-grid” and relied upon a 2-kilowatt wind turbine between 1971 and 1982. When he planted his vineyard in 1980, however, he connected to the grid because of increased water pumping.
Pasternak was initially frustrated by technical glitches related to adjustments were necessary to integrate the machine into the more primitive local grid. Yet he quickly points out turbine has required zero maintenance since it began operating last May. “Solar is not cost effective, whereas with these used wind turbines, they can pencil out without any government subsidies,” he said. It is estimated that there are roughly 900 used Vestas turbines now available on the market, as they are being replaced by newer, larger turbines in California’s Altamont Pass and other existing wind farms.
His wind turbine supplies all of the energy for his home, and about half of his ranch’s needs. From his vantage point, wind makes a lot of sense in Marin, particularly the used Vestas turbines that he has. (Even Willard acknowledged the superiority of this technology. “They are like the Volkswagon Beetle cars, they just go and go and go…”) Pasternak summed up his views in this way: “I think wind turbines look really cool. I don’t see them as detraction, but rather as an enhancement to the environment.”
When asked about concepts such as “community wind,” a model of development popular in the Midwest, Pasternak’s eyes grew even bigger with enthusiasm. Under this format, several farmers, and even schools and small businesses could pool their resources and communally own a wind turbine. “That would be ideal for Marin County,” said Pasternak. “Maybe one person has a good windy site, but lacks the capital. Others in the community can come up with the cash. Think of it, we could actually cooperate on a community level to bring clean energy to Marin County from the wind.”