City considers regulating turbines

January 28, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- As small, roof-mounted "microturbines" make wind power more accessible to individual households, Hagerstown officials are debating whether to allow them in the city and, if so, how to regulate them.

The Hagerstown Planning Commission decided Wednesday to look into adopting state-recommended regulations for appearance, lot size, setbacks, sound levels and ground clearance for wind turbines.

Research presented at Wednesday's meeting showed wind turbines probably would not be cost-efficient in the city, where wind is limited and electric rates are already low. Still, commission chair Douglas S. Wright said he foresees them "popping up all over town" on the homes of environmentally conscious residents who don't care about the cost.

Roof-mounted turbines, a new technology currently gaining interest, range in cost from about $3,500 for a model that produces about 500 watts of power to about $35,000 for a model that produces 10 kilowatts of power, according to a report by planning inspector Clayton L. Zug.


Studies on microturbine performance are just beginning, and some experts warn the choppier wind common in cities could wear them down and reduce their efficiency, Zug said.

Planning Commission members agreed residents should be allowed to experiment with turbines if they have an appropriate site, but many said limitations are needed to keep them from becoming a nuisance.

"What I'm talking about is something that would be installed on a 50-foot lot, residential, with a house 25 feet away, that is fwuh-fwuh-fwuh, you know, and you would see at some point in the day the shadow of that thing going across your yard," Wright said.

Commission member David S. Gysberts was less concerned.

"To me, I think they're just aesthetically pleasing," Gysberts said. "There's something enjoyable about knowing that there's clean, affordable energy out there, even if it's just powering a porch light."

Wright argued the city was too dense for turbines, comparing them to wells and septic tanks.

"There are some things we have to sacrifice if we're living close to each other, and I think this falls into that category," he said.

The state-recommended guidelines for wind turbines would rule out putting them on most properties in Hagerstown, Zug said. One of those guidelines would prohibit them on parcels smaller than a half-acre, which rules out 93 percent of lots in the city, he said.

Currently, city codes are silent on the issue of wind turbines, but city zoning administrator Stephen Bockmiller said he would interpret that as prohibiting them. Bockmiller said he made an exception for a wind generator a teacher has proposed to build at Washington County Technical High School because it would be installed as a school project.

Wright said he thought the high school was an appropriate site for a wind turbine.

According to Zug's report, the state of Maryland is tied for last with 17 others in wind resource availability. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's wind resource map shows the Chesapeake Bay as having "good" wind resources and spotted areas of "marginal" wind resources in Garrett County and eastern Washington County, Zug said.

Recently, large wind turbines were installed in Garrett County and the Eastern Shore under conditional permits, Zug said. In May, Carroll County became the first in the state to enact an ordinance authorizing small turbine use, he said.

Washington County's codes are also silent on the issue of wind turbines, commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said. Aleshire said regulating turbines was probably a more pressing issue for the city than for the county because of the city's higher density.

A major wind power company that visited the county in October said Washington County was too far inland for a viable wind farm operation, Aleshire said.

The Maryland State Climatology Office found that Hagerstown's wind speeds average 4 to 7 mph, less than ideal for most turbines, Zug said. Building-mounted microturbines could be an exception, but it would be advisable to wait until studies on their effectiveness are completed, he said.

"The research is just starting right now, and I wouldn't believe that Hagerstown, Maryland is going to be the foremost authority on mounted turbines," Zug said.

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