Generating big interest

April 19, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
Print
Text Size:
A A
Six new Swift wind turbines are now spinning atop the Meijer Inc. corporate headquarters on breezy days in Walker. Over a year, they will put out about 12,000 kilowatt hours of power — only a fraction of the total electricity required by the four-story building, which is used by 900 office workers.

But that's no problem, because that's not the point.

The company's intent "really is about being out in front, in trying to set a good example and take a small step" toward promotion of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, according to Meijer Inc. spokesperson Stacie Behler.

The wind turbines, which are assembled by Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids and were installed by Cascade about 10 days ago, are the first of a number of small rooftop turbines Meijer Inc. plans to put on its buildings. Meijer stores in Grand Haven, Norton Shores and Petoskey will be fitted with them, if the company gets approval from those local zoning officials, according to Behler.

"We're taking a lot of small, experimental steps when it comes to renewable energy and environmental impact," said Behler. "All of our new stores are going to be LEED compliant."

Two years ago Meijer opened a new store in Allen Park, near Detroit, that was built on a former industrial site later declared a brownfield. It was the company's first LEED-certified store.

"We're taking some small steps and seeing what works and what doesn’t work," said Behler. She added that Meijer is "a big company and we make a big impact (on the environment), and so we want to start thinking about how can we lessen that impact."

According to Jessica Lehti, sales and marketing manager for Cascade Engineering's renewable energy unit, the Swift turbines are designed to be very quiet and vibration free so that they can be installed on a rooftop. The Swift is considered a small generator: Peak output is rated at 1.5 kilowatts (kW) and on average, over the course of a year, it will generate about 2,000 kilowatts hours (kWh) of electricity.

The Federal EPA reports that the average single-family home in the U.S. used almost 12,000 kWh in 2003.

Lehti said the six turbines now mounted on the Meijer corporate headquarters will provide about 1 to 2 percent of the energy required by the building. But she noted it will help reduce energy costs during peak load periods and has a "big environmental benefit." Over a year, she said, each turbine will produce electricity that would otherwise require burning 2,000 pounds of coal.

Meijer will also qualify for a new federal 30 percent tax credit, allowing accelerated depreciation of the equipment. Last fall the federal Emergency Economic Stabilization Act included a new tax credit for investments in small wind turbines for home, farm or business use. The credit is equal to 30 percent of the total installed cost of a turbine, limited to $4,000 for businesses.

A Swift sells for about $8,500 plus another $1,500 to $3,000 for installation, according to Cascade Engineering CEO Fred Keller. Cascade Engineering, which specializes in plastic products, manufactures the plastic blades and rotors and assembles the units under license from a European company that developed the Swift several years ago.

Since the first Swifts were shipped from the Cascade Engineering plant in October, about 30 are now up and operating in the U.S., according to Lehti.

"We have a backlog of 42 customers," she added. "Their installation is somewhere in process."

Bauer Power in Wayland also sells and installs the Swift turbines assembled by Cascade Engineering. Since last fall they have installed four in Michigan, three of them at homes and one at a business in the Lansing area.

Other wind turbines may soon be appearing in the city of Walker, which is about to adopt a wind turbine ordinance. Since they are not yet allowed by the zoning ordinance, Meijer Inc. had to apply for a variance for the installation on the corporate headquarters.

"It just so happened that we had the request for a variance at the same time we were working on an ordinance," said Walker Mayor Rob VerHeulen, who also is a Meijer executive who works in the corporate headquarters building.

The Meijer Inc. wind turbines would have complied with the ordinance the Walker city council is about to vote on, noted VerHeulen. The ordinance allows some type of wind turbine in every type of zone in Walker, with the fewest restrictions being on the smallest, roof-mounted type.

VerHeulen said Walker officials do not expect to see "a wind turbine on every house," but as the cost of wind turbines is expected to go down as more are manufactured, they wanted to allow homeowners to "experiment" with them if they want to.

Frank Wash of the Walker city planning department said he is aware of two possible wind turbine installations in the city in the near future. One would be at the site of a proposed Goodwill store on the south side of Lake Michigan Drive at the Kent-Ottawa county line. The other would also be in the Standale business district, where Standale Lumber has indicated interest in installing a turbine.

The new zoning ordinance in Walker allowing wind turbines within set guidelines "will give us an opportunity for the whole community to kind of learn about them and still give the public a forum" to voice opinions about wind turbines, said Wash.

One of the key objections to wind turbines over the years has been alleged noise of the blades sweeping through the air. The Swift turbine, which has plastic blades within a rotor measuring almost 7 feet in diameter, is rated at "less than 35 decibels for all wind speeds," according to the Cascade Web site. By comparison, the Washington Post reports that a refrigerator hum is about 40 decibels and the noise of "average traffic" is 85.

A couple of days after the Meijer turbines began spinning on the corporate headquarters building, VerHeulen and other company officials escorted news media to the roof to see the turbines in action, close up. There was a brisk breeze blowing.

"When I was on the roof, the sound (from the spinning turbines) was minimal," said VerHeulen.  "There was sound coming from the other mechanicals on the roof, which masked any sound from the turbines."

Recent Articles by Pete Daly

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus