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Blade Runner

Federal grant helps local businesses install alternative energy sources

Posted: December 5, 2011 - 3:08am
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Photo by M. Scott Moon
Jerry Herring talks about the power inverters for his wind turbine and solar arrays. “This is the brains of the whole system,” he said. “I’m real proud of this.” Herring said the inverters convert the raw energy coming in from the turbine and panels to the standard Homer Electric Association uses.

A number of Kenai Peninsula businesses are installing renewable energy systems this winter due to a United States Department of Agriculture grant program that aided the purchases.

The USDA’s Renewable Energy for America Program targets small businesses and agricultural producers, said Chad Stovall, who helps administer the program in Alaska.

Stovall said that four of the five central Peninsula applicants received funding in 2011. On the entire Kenai Peninsula, 10 of 24 applicants were funded.

“The Kenai Peninsula usually gets the majority of the projects,” Stovall said.

One of the new projects is out Funny River Road near Brown Lake, where Jerry Herring has his home and office. Herring, the founder of Central Alaska Engineering, received a REAP grant from the 2011 cycle. His turbine was installed at the end of November. 

Herring said that getting the turbine was a way of putting his money where his mouth is.

“As an engineer, I’m into renewable energy,” Herring said.

The grant, plus a federal tax credit that also incentivized the purchase, made the turbine feasible.

“With the grant, it makes the project economically feasible while on the grid with a net metering scheme,” Herring said.

That net metering scheme means that Herring can sell his power back to Homer Electric Association when he doesn’t need it.

His turbine is a 6-kilowatt-hour Kingspan, mounted on a 48-foot pole. It can produce 6 kilowatt-hours of energy in an hour when the wind is blowing at 25 mph. The turbine needs about four or five mph winds to start spinning, and six mph winds to start producing energy.

That wind also needs to be consistent, not fluctuating in speed too much, for the power to integrate into the grid. Herring said the big wind events are when the turbines really generate a good chunk of power. 

Assuming the cost of power goes up in the coming decades, Herring said the turbine should pay itself off in about 15 years. The payoff comes when the cost of the turbine matches the amount he’ll save on his electric bill. The turbine should last about 20 to 25 years.

Herring hired Alaskan Wind Industries to write the grant and help him plan for the turbine. They evaluated several models and types of systems before determining that the Kingspan was the best fit, he said.

Stovall credited local applicants’ success at earning REAP grants largely to the work of Alaskan Wind Industries in writing the grants.

Nadia Daggett, the operations manager at AWI, said her firm has helped with about 20 USDA applications over the past few years for wind and solar projects. This was the company’s third year in assisting with the grants, and all six wind turbine applications they helped submit this year were funded.

Daggett said AWI added a financial team to help with grant writing in 2009.

“We do everything in house and that makes it more viable for our clients,” Daggett said.

Stovall said AWI also works to help find the appropriate turbine for each applicant, doing wind and resource evaluations and matching energy use with energy production.

The turbine Herring chose is a common choice for the Kenai Peninsula. AWI helped Warren Johnson at Bear Lake Lodge get a grant for a similar turbine on a shorter pole.

Herring said he chose his turbine in part because its design makes it easier to maintain. It is on a tiltable pole, making maintenance easier and cheaper. That’s important, because he doesn’t want to spend all the money he saves on electricity just keeping it running, Herring said.

“This is a really good turbine, the way it is set up,” Herring said.

The turbine also fits his energy needs — he says he uses more power than a home would because of his shop. And it can withstand winds up to about 100 mph, which was important for Herring’s location, where the wind can get pretty strong.

Herring’s turbine will do more than just produce energy for his shoffice — the term he uses to refer to the combined shop and office he built this spring for his business. He also wants to add some alternative energy work to his business.

Herring’s shop includes a set of power inverters, which transform raw power from his wind turbine and two recently-installed solar arrays into the clean power HEA uses for its customers. That conversion is done in inverter boxes, with displays telling Herring how much energy he’s producing and what the system is doing.

The inverter also acts as a sort of filter. Herring’s power will only sync with HEA’s grid when both sources match HEA’s standards. That means that if the power is irregular on Herring’s end, or if HEA is having outages that interrupt the supply, it won’t link them up.

“This is the brains of the whole system right there,” he said.

Designing it took some work, because the inverter has to match the size of the alternative energy sources. Herring said AWI and other local businesses helped him with designing and installing the control center.

“I’m real proud of this ... been a long process,” he said.

Herring said he would like to be able to sign off on the designs for such control areas as part of his engineering firm’s business.

Herring said he’s pleased with how the grant has worked out, and supports the program that offers them.

“I think renewable energy is a good use of grant funds,” Herring said.

Stovall said the grants are tied to the Farm Bill, which is up for renewal in 2013. Next year’s funding is fairly solid, with about $70 million available for REAP grants across the nation.

Daggett said the deadline for the 2012 grants is the end of January, but the tax credits may expire at the end of this month, so the best bargains will come now, rather than later. The REAP grants are also best applied for early, she said.

“Usually the way they have it is first come, first serve,” Daggett said.

 

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@peninsulaclarion.com.

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