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The wind farmer

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Justin C. Sutton wants to set up a wind turbine in Georgetown County — and he says he doesn’t need to wait for the results of offshore wind studies that began last year.

“We could start today,” he said. “It only takes about 60 days from laying the pad to putting it up.”

The difference is Sutton wants to build the turbine on shore. He said the difficulty isn’t with the wind, it’s with the connection to the power grid.

Sutton, a Pawleys Island area resident, and his business partner, Ken Kearney, own Natural Energy, a consulting firm that works with wind farm developers, manufacturers of wind energy turbines, investors, electric utility companies and government agencies. They’ve spent eight months trying to plug into the power grid for a test turbine that they believe would prove the viability of onshore wind energy in South Carolina.

Sutton and Kearney have been negotiating with Santee Cooper and SCANA Energy to put wind turbines near the Winyah Generating Station outside Georgetown and at Lake Murray. They’re still talking with the utilities, but have received little encouragement, Sutton said.

His company has been involved in similar initiatives in other states, including one in Michigan, which has been successful. They all involve private investment, and Sutton says they are viable because of tax breaks for alternative energy.

“We think at this point South Carolina is the only state in the union that does not have a wind project going,” Sutton said.

Though Santee Cooper is involved in a study to determine if an offshore wind farm is viable, and a wind meter has been set up at Hobcaw Barony, near North Inlet, “there’s not an actual generator running,” Sutton said.

“There’s no reason we can’t do this today,” he said. “Rather than putting up a wind tower, let’s put up turbines and show this can be done.”

Mollie Gore, Santee Cooper’s director of publications, confirmed the company has “had some preliminary conversations” with Sutton. It would be Natural Energy’s responsibility to find land for the turbines to be erected on and to take care of any other details to get the turbines up.

“We’re waiting at this point on him to fine tune his proposal a little bit,” she said. “Our research has shown the best potential for wind energy is offshore and that’s where we’re concentrating our efforts, but if somebody wants to permit and put up a turbine [onshore] and finds it actually generates power, we will certainly talk to them about buying that power if they can bring it to us at a fair price.”

Sutton said he thinks Santee Cooper and the state Energy Office are looking in the wrong direction when it comes to wind energy.

Offshore wind farms are running effectively in several European countries, Sutton said, but “the cost of maintenance is ridiculously prohibitive.” There are also concerns about the effect on fish habitats and maritime sailing.

Many believe South Carolina’s onshore winds aren’t strong enough to generate electricity, but Sutton disagrees. Wind turbine technology has come a long way in recent years and strong winds aren’t needed for electricity generation, he said.

The current generation of turbines can operate in winds as little at 5 miles an hour, Sutton said. And he said strong winds can actually put more stress on the turbines, raising maintenance costs.

“The optimum wind speed is 9 to 10 miles per hour,” he said. “There are about 27 turbine manufacturers we’ve contacted about this area specifically and none we’ve spoken to have said anything about wind being an issue.”

A sustained wind speed of 12.5 miles per hour is required to generate electricity cost efficiently, according to the S.C. Energy Office.

Wind turbines have been used for hundreds of years to pump water from wells, but have only been used to produce electricity for about three decades. Turbines used for commercial production of electric power are usually three-bladed and pointed into the wind by computer-controlled motors.

“They’re very technical instruments, but also simple,” Sutton said. “They feather out so they catch the maximum of wind.”

The aesthetic impact of wind turbines are also a concern, especially in South Carolina, where tourism is the number one industry. That concern is negligible in Sutton’s opinion.

The 380-foot turbine at the Winyah Generating Station would be next to a facility whose tallest smokestack is 520 feet.

Turbines aren’t unattractive in Sutton’s view, and they’re a curiosity for many people.

Nick Longfield, an international wind energy specialist who talked to Santee Cooper officials and community leaders about offshore wind earlier this year, said offshore wind farms in Europe have become tourist attractions.

As for noise, Sutton said turbines are quieter than most would believe.

“I swear, if one was sitting right outside your door, 380 feet high, even with the windows open you couldn’t hear it,” he said. “You can carry on a conversation right under these massive blades and you wouldn’t notice.”

Environmental concerns about the effects of wind turbines on bird flocks are unfounded, Sutton said. The occasional bird might fly into a blade, as they do with windows, but “they’re not going to decimate entire flocks. That’s never happened in Europe or South America, or anyplace these have been used.”

Turbines rotate slowly, usually about 10 to 22 revolutions per minute.

Sutton, who has been in the energy business for 25 years, said now is the time to look at wind energy, because of new government incentives, including tax credits, that have made it more economically viable.

The public is also more likely to be receptive now.

“People are watching their pennies more than the views right now,” Sutton said. “I think people would just as soon have nice looking towers as to pay a 10 percent rate hike for the rest of their lives.”

Santee Cooper’s board of directors just approved a 3.4 percent base rate increase, effective Nov. 1, to offset rising costs of operating and maintaining facilities.

When Sutton moved to the Pawleys Island area in February, he did so with the intention of duplicating here the wind energy initiative his company was involved with in Michigan, he said. But after months of work with little progress, he’s not sure how much more time he can devote to the effort.

“We’re kind of at a point where we need to rethink,” he said. “We could turn around now and go to Minnesota and I know there will be a band playing as opposed to constantly finding some objection, some reason not to do this.”

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