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Alternative energy

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Local businessman blazes trail for solar, wind power in county

By John Barnhart

Roger Henderson wants to build a windmill.

    Unlike the fictional Spanish gentleman, Henderson isn’t planning a jousting match. He has a totally pragmatic plan of taking advantage of the wind that blows across his property near Sedalia to generate electricity.

    Henderson owns H.A.L. Woodworking, a business that his father started back in the ‘70s. He makes hardwood items such as trophy bases, wine racks and plaques. Last year, he installed 14 solar panels on the shop’s roof. They are each 36 inches by 60 inches, raised four to five inches above the roof and connected in series “like Christmas tree lights.”

    Solar panels produce direct current, but alternating current pulses through the power grid. In order to convert the solar panels’ direct current into alternating   current, it is  fed through  a  device called an inverter. Henderson’s inverter is rated at four kilowatts and his panels generate a maximum of three kilowatts.

    “I can add six more panels and not exceed the capacity of this inverter,” Henderson said.

    The entire system cost $25,000, but a federal tax credit, available to businesses and individuals allowed him to take $7,500 off the amount he owed the IRS in taxes. Henderson anticipates additional economic benefits because he believes electric rates will double within five years. The system keeps line voltage within 5 percent of its set level. This protects Henderson from a voltage spike coming down the line from outside.

    Although Henderson’s shop is on Va. 122 in the Sedalia area, he gets his electrical power from Bedford’s electric system. This is because the power line from the city’s hydroelectric plant on the James River runs nearby. When Henderson uses more power than his solar panels produce, he buys power from Bedford. When his solar panels make more than he uses, the excess feeds into Bedford’s power grid, and he gets paid for it.

    “On a bright sunny day, I’m feeding into the grid,” Henderson said.

    It’s lowered his power bill. He went live on Dec. 4, 2008, and, during the first full billing period that he had it in place, it reduced his power bill by 5 percent. This was in the dead of winter during the darkest time of the year.  By late spring, it was reducing his bill by nearly 80 percent.

    Having this system doesn’t mean that Henderson has power during a power outage. If Bedford’s power to his shop goes out, Henderson’s system shuts off. The city can also turn it off. This is a safety feature. It makes sure that he won’t electrocute anybody by feeding power into lines that electric department crews believe are disconnected.

    “We have all sorts of safety features so linemen don’t get hurt,” he said.

    Henderson’s system does not charge batteries. He said that batteries are expensive and create safety risks.

    “This is the most practical way to do solar power,” said Henderson.

    While solar power works well in June, it’s not as effective in December. The low sun angles mean that the panels get less solar energy even on bright, sunny days. The days are also short. This is why Henderson wants to build a windmill. He has long noted the strong winds that rush down from the mountain ridge to his west and blow across the hill where his shop are located. He gets the best wind action from November through February, just when he’s getting the least power from his solar system. He said that he will be able to make wind-generated electricity 24 hours a day. On bright, sunny winter days, he will be able to make both solar and wind power.

    Henderson is looking to build a 60-foot tower with blades spinning in a circle 12 feet in diameter. The tower would be a tapered metal monopole bolted to a concrete pad. The system will be set to shut itself off if wind velocity gets too high so it won’t damage itself. It could do this by either locking the blades, or changing their angle so that the wind would no longer spin them. Henderson is still in the planning stage, so he hasn’t decided which method he will use.

    He believes this hybrid system will allow him to be a net power producer, rather than consumer. Henderson believes that alternative energy is a way that small businesses can make additional money by selling power.

    Henderson points to Gainesville, Fla., as an example of something governments can do to encourage this. The city has a municipal power system and charges customers 13 cents per kilowatt-hour. It pays people, who feed power into the grid, 31 cents per kilowatt hour. The city benefits because it doesn’t have to provide more power capacity. Instead, the city is providing small businesses with an incentive to do it.

    The good news for Henderson is that his shop is located in an area zoned Agricultural Village (AV). This means he can put up a tower with a windmill on it. The bad news for Henderson is that the tower can’t be more than 32-feet high and this is not tall enough.

    This means he has to get a conditional use permit. He has to pay a $2,000 fee to do this and it’s always possible that the planing commission and the board of supervisors could deny it. He has to go through all of this before he can apply for a building permit.

    Henderson said he has already talked to officials from the county and the city asking them to adopt alternate energy policies that will help people go forward.

    “We need a wind tower ordinance,” he said.

    Such an ordinance would make a tower like Henderson plans a use by right in appropriate areas This eliminates the added expense and uncertainty of the special use permit process and allow people to directly apply for a building permit.

    “They don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Henderson said, stating that some other counties already have such ordinances in place. These could be used as a basis.

    Even with such an ordinance in place, there will still be a learning curve for local officials.

    “I was the first one in Bedford County to do solar, so they didn’t know what to do with me,” Henderson said.

    Henderson got his building permit but the county’s building inspectors then had to learn what to inspect for. Henderson was their guinea pig.

    The ordinance Henderson is looking for is in the works for Bedford County. According to Mary Zirkle, the county’s chief of planning, the planning commission will include windmill language in the new county zoning ordinance that is being developed.

    Once he gets his windmill, Henderson plans to build on his work as a local alternative energy pioneer. He owns Hurricane Hill, an event facility adjacent to his workshop and he hopes to host events that will let people see two real-world systems in operation. Henderson would put together a “how to” book that would tell people how to get the permits for an alternate energy system and who can install it. This would be presented as part of a Saturday morning seminar.

    “I think every American should do what they can to reduce our dependance on imported oil,” he said.

    Along with being concerned about our dependence on oil imported, Henderson is also worried about CO2 emissions.

    “We’ve yucked up the air pretty bad,” said Henderson, who believes man-made global warming is real.