Winds of change 

City Council considers allowing backyard turbines

It's been an especially windy spring. At least it seems that way to Lane Coulston.

"Maybe I was just focused on it," says the white-haired renewable energy advocate who's eager to erect a wind turbine in his Lower Rattlesnake backyard.

With radiant heat, a solar-powered hot water system, high-efficiency windows and roofing shingles made of recycled vinyl and cellulose, Coulston and his wife, Linda, have designed their home to be a model for sustainable living. Coulston explains that roughly 65 percent of his current electricity is generated by solar panels that sit atop his garage. By contrast, the average Montana household relies on coal-fired power plants for 62 percent of its electricity, according to the state. Coulston hopes installing the vertical axis wind turbine in his backyard will get the house even closer to operating completely on renewable resources.

But there's a hitch. Existing city zoning regulations prohibit wind-energy machines on city lots. Aiming to change that, Coulston approached the Missoula City Council about two months ago and asked it to legalize urban turbines.

click to enlarge Lower Rattlesnake resident Lane Coulston wants to erect a wind turbine in his backyard, but current city zoning laws prevent it. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Lower Rattlesnake resident Lane Coulston wants to erect a wind turbine in his backyard, but current city zoning laws prevent it.

"We're trying to look at making a paradigm shift in terms of peoples' thinking about using alternative energy," he says.

The turbine itself will cost about $4,000 fully installed, and it stands just more than five feet tall. Once elevated and better situated to catch a breeze, the turbine would reach about 21 feet high. That's roughly two feet above the ridgeline of Coulston's garage.

He estimates the machine will generate about 300 kilowatt-hours per month—the average American household consumes about 900 kilowatt-hours during the same period. Without taking into account an array of tax credits and grants, Coulston predicts the unit will pay for itself in about 10 years. But it's not really about the cash, he says.

"It's not just for me," he says. "Everybody in the community has to start moving in this direction, and start harnessing other natural resources, the sun and wind."

Ward 1 Councilman Jason Wiener is on board. Prompted by Coulston, he's drafted a plan that could lift Missoula's urban turbine ban.

"Frankly, it's a little more democratic than having one big plant out in the middle of somewhere that's controlled by one single entity," Wiener says. "That's really the impetus behind this, to facilitate that move toward distributive power generation."

Wiener proposes to allow one turbine per lot in all Missoula neighborhoods unless expressly prohibited. Properties larger than 80,000 square feet could erect up to three turbines, pending City Council approval. As it stands, height would be dictated by existing zoning limits, with exceptions granted to machines significantly removed from property lines.

Though Wiener sees producing energy at home as an easy pitch, not everyone on City Council is sold on the idea. Some council members voiced questions about whether the aesthetics would bring down property values or the added noise would become a nuisance.

Ward 4 Councilman Jon Wilkins spoke to the issue during a recent meeting. He said if a neighbor's turbine were to generate half as much noise as a vacuum during the night he'd have a hard time restraining himself.

"I'd probably be pulling out the .44 and shooting the vacuum," Wilkins said.

Proponents say a turbine's volume is akin to a quiet library conversation.

"I don't know if Jon's ever shot his neighbor's air conditioner, but I don't think it's going to be much louder," Wiener says.

That said, Wiener admits the scrutiny is natural.

"People are a little bit concerned about something that is, I guess, a little strange or unfamiliar," he says. "I suppose I've also encountered a little dubiousness about how effective these would be."

Persians and Chinese harnessed wind energy as early as the 13th century, using it to grind grains and pump water. Even so, urban wind technology is still in many ways in its infancy, says Mike Sudik, president of Missoula-based Big Sky Solar and Wind and an adviser on Coulston's Lower Rattlesnake project. That's why Sudik is having a tough time estimating exactly how much energy Coulston's turbine could generate. He calculates that during a 30-day period averaging 6.5-mile-per-hour winds, Coulston would generate about 100 kilowatt-hours of energy. That's lower than Coulston hopes, but because the technology is virtually untested in Missoula, computations are tricky.

"It's very tough to tell," Sudik says. "People really haven't done it."

Sudik says research is lacking largely because municipal governments across the nation have been hesitant to welcome turbine technology. With barriers slowing demand, there's little push to innovate.

"So many cities are shooting this stuff down," he says. "Therefore, the technology cannot grow."

Wiener's proposal is currently working its way through Missoula's Planning Board, which will hold a public hearing to hash out the proposal during an as-yet-unscheduled meeting this summer.

In the meantime, Coulston will continue translating wind speed into energy production while listening to the breeze through the tall pines surrounding his property.

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