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On Anchorage’s windy mountainsides, turbines could reduce homeowners’ dependence on the grid

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: May 16, 2018
  • Published May 15, 2018

Brian Trimble stands where he plans to install a 5-kilowatt wind turbine to help power his Eagle River home, charge electric vehicles and de-ice his driveway. (Bill Roth / ADN)

At the back of his 2-acre property off Skyline Drive in Eagle River last week, Brian Trimble gestured to a wooden stake with a pink survey flag tied to the top.

The stake marks the spot where Trimble hopes to break ground on a four-story wind turbine this summer, a move he hopes will become a model for an eco-friendly life that relies less on natural gas and for harnessing the area's characteristic howling gusts.

"The winds come screaming down this valley," Trimble said, looking up at the forested land sloping off Mount Baldy. "We're right on the edge, so we do have the wind."

At the moment, Trimble's project is unusual and out of the price range for a lot of people, but it may not always be: Wind turbines dot properties throughout Alaska, including in the Matanuska Valley. Interest also appears to be growing in Anchorage, part of the rising popularity of alternative energy.

City planners say they expect to start seeing more applications like Trimble's from the city's windier, more alpine regions.

The increased interest also has some neighbors wanting to refine the city's regulations. One of the first permitted backyard turbines in Bear Valley failed last year during a windstorm, sending a fiberglass blade flying through the air and into a neighbor's backyard and raising questions about the challenges of generating power from high winds.

Backyard wind turbines aren't necessarily the focus for proponents of renewable power. Christopher Rose, the executive director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, a statewide organization that advocates for renewable energy, said his group is working to promote large-scale wind along the Railbelt.

Such projects can be operated and maintained by utilities with engineering staff who are able to inject larger amounts of wind power into the grid, Rose said, while reducing the state's dependence on natural gas.

But small-scale renewable power is being encouraged by Anchorage city planners, who say it's good for the city.

"It's forward-thinking, and that's what we need, in my opinion," said city planner Sharon Ferguson.

Ferguson said the city wants to encourage renewable energy through wind generation while balancing the concerns of neighbors who don't want views to be blocked.

Brian Trimble built a model of a vertical wind turbine that he plans to install at his home. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Trimble and his wife, Mary, moved to Eagle River in the late 1980s. Bit by bit, the couple built a timber-frame house that Trimble imagined would someday be powered by renewable energy.

Trimble, who works for Alaska Native Medical Center, regularly travels around the state to treat patients. He's seen turbines in other places, such as Kotzebue, that help cut high energy costs. He likes innovation, he said, and closely tracks companies like Tesla, a maker of electric cars and batteries.

Trimble hopes to someday heat his driveway and power electric vehicles. Without renewable power, it's far too expensive, he said.

His future wind turbine, which he ordered from China, has vertical blades. While less efficient, the design will look nicer to neighbors and be better suited to the city's size restrictions, he said. A residential wind turbine in Anchorage can be up to 95 feet tall, but that entirely depends on the size of a homeowner's property and proximity to neighboring homes.

Ferguson, the city planner, said she doesn't see turbines going up beyond the large lots of the city's windy, sloped alpine areas.

"A lot of people in the Bowl don't have to worry about it coming to their neighborhood," Ferguson said. "It wouldn't spin enough to make it worthwhile."

In the hills of Eagle River, though, winds can reach up to 130 mph, well above what a turbine can safely withstand. Trimble said his turbine is designed to be tipped down in a big windstorm, for safety and maintenance.

He plans to build the turbine behind his garage, where he has installed more than two dozen solar panels on the roof. His electric bill was $50 in March, about $100 less than what he usually pays for the month. The wind power will supplement the solar year-round, particularly in winter, Trimble said. Since Trimble does not have a way to store the power he produces, he sells it back to the Matanuska Electric Association but hopes to store the power someday in battery form.

It isn't cheap to do this kind of project. The solar panels cost about $18,000. The wind turbine project has cost about $12,000 so far, Trimble said.

But Trimble said he's in a position to do it and feels obligated to try.

"I think future generations will benefit," Trimble said.

Trimble said he doesn't expect the project to pay for itself anytime soon. He also doesn't expect ever to be fully "off-grid" and will still rely to some extent on fossil fuels.

Trimble's is only the second backyard turbine application that has come across Ferguson's desk at the city planning department. The first, on a road high up in the Bear Valley neighborhood, ended poorly.

In summer 2017, neighbors were taken by surprise when pieces of an 80-foot wind turbine appeared in another neighbor's driveway, said Michael Haukedalen, who lives there. Because it's a change a homeowner is making to their own property, there's no public notice required, Ferguson said.

Bear Valley is a quiet neighborhood, where people move for views of the mountains. Haukedalen joined a group of neighbors who raised concerns with city officials. The group worried about the size and volume of this turbine, Haukedalen said.

"We all support alternative energy," Haukedalen said. "We would love this project, if it was scaled right."

Once it did go up, in early October, people who lived close by thought it sounded like a helicopter, Haukedalen said.

The turbine lasted about one week. Then a windstorm hit. The blades of the wind turbine broke apart and flew into the air. One blade landed on a neighbor's property; another piece of machinery landed across the street, Haukedalen said.

No one was hurt and there was no damage to homes. But the incident confirmed the fears of neighbors, Haukedalen said.

Ferguson said the city didn't yet know what went wrong beyond a mechanical failure. The wind turbine could be adjusted for expected winds, Ferguson said, and the homeowners said they were doing what they were supposed to.

Haukedalen said the failure highlighted a possible area where the city could be vulnerable to liability. It inspired him to work with city officials on a long-term effort to make sure future backyard wind turbines are safe and the right size for neighborhoods, he said.

Brian and Mary Trimble have solar panels on the garage of their Eagle River home and are in the process of getting approval to install a wind turbine. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Trimble, in Eagle River, said he had spoken with his neighbors. People were generally supportive of the project, he said. His turbine is being engineered to avoid such a failure. Trimble said he plans to someday use a phone and tablet application to monitor wind speeds and lower the turbine remotely.

He added that his property isn't near a wetlands, reducing risk to birds. He also said the turbine will only be as tall as the tallest trees and won't threaten the paragliders who regularly fly off nearby Mount Baldy.

Standing in their kitchen last week, Trimble's wife said he is working with cutting-edge technology.

"I do think it will be very common someday," Mary Trimble said. "But right now he's sort of forging the future."

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