Winds of change: Project promotes community power generation

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Paul Lehman had high hopes when Erik Foley from St. Francis University came by his farm to set up an anenometer last spring.

Mr. Lehman had contacted the Loretto school's Renewable Energy Center to learn about the possibility of placing a wind turbine on his Black Angus dairy farm. The anenometer would measure the breezes that blew across the Boswell farm, between Johnstown and Somerset, to determine whether there was enough wind to make the use of a turbine practical.

This spring, after a year's worth of data had been collected, Mr. Lehman's hopes were dashed. The turbine he wanted to build would require an average wind speed of 15 miles per hour. His "wind resource" was a little more than 12 miles per hour.

"We were hoping for things to be better," he said. "But ignorance is not bliss."

Mr. Lehman, 67, is one of a handful of people who have made use of the energy center, created in 2005 to encourage "alternative energy development that supports environmental stewardship while spurring economic development and social equity."

In practice, that mouthful of clauses has mostly come down to working at research that may help to produce "community wind" projects -- that is, wind power projects that would generate 1 to 10 megawatts of electricity, in contrast to the large-scale commercial projects that gain a lion's share of the attention, and government dollars.

The cornerstone of the center's work is the Pennsylvania Wind Assessment Program, which does for landowners throughout the state what it did for Mr. Lehman: measure their available wind to determine if there is enough for one or more turbines. There are half a dozen anenometers at work; by November two of them in northern Cambria County will have completed the 12 months of testing necessary to judge the feasibility of a project.

Once a final report is completed for each of the sites, both of which appear to be good candidates, their development could go in one of three directions, said Mr. Foley, the director of the center.

An outside developer could be brought in to construct a wind farm, although "there's a lot of companies that are not interested in the smaller projects."

The landowner could develop a project themselves -- often in cooperation with neighbors, "to make the project a little bigger" -- and work with the St. Francis center "to get together the capital to do it."

Finally, if a larger project is already nearby, a site could be added to it. "That's on the list, but it's not in alignment with the mission, which is about local ownership," Mr. Foley said. "The 'community' in community wind is a question of ownership. It's about trying to get more of a financial benefit to the landowner than simply a lease payment; there's an equity stake in the project."

Whatever the path taken, the development of a wind farm also must pass through a permitting phase, dealing with such matters as zoning, before acquiring the financing that will enable the construction. So the work that is being done by the center now is still very early in a process that may last four to six years.

"The work that we do gets you out of the blocks, but you still have to run the lap ... several times," Mr. Foley said with a laugh.

In the center's first year, its literature expressed the hope that it would "ensure that all St. Francis students get practical, hand-on experience creating the New Economy fueled by clean, renewable energy." A summary of activities between April and June shows that it has indeed drawn students from a wide range of disciplines.

Two students developed a new software program to automate wind data analysis. Another student joined with a professor to develop a system for comparing one year results with a 10-year period. A group of students conducted a study of bird life at the northern Cambria County sites -- they found that while there were no endangered species at either location, there were several rare species, triggering the need for further study to determine the potential effects that a wind farm would have on those birds.

The center's funders include the Penelec/Met Ed Sustainable Energy Funds, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Heinz Endowments.

As for Mr. Lehman, the end of one hope has formed the beginning of another. He still meets with Mr. Foley to discuss ways that he and his fellow farmers might be able to capture some of the benefits of the growing alternative energy movement.

"There are certain values that need to be passed on in our society," values that have to do with honoring the land and the people that work the land, he said. "Is this [alternative energy] one way that we can keep the farm in the family?" His family has owned the farm for 150 years.

In his 67 years, Mr. Lehman has seen a lot of "class inequity," and wants to make certain that all the benefits of coming changes in the energy landscape don't flow solely to large corporations.

"We want a part of this pie."


Elwin Green can be reached at egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969.


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