Ann Arbor congregation uses wind power

Ann Arbor congregation uses wind power

Unitarian Universalist congregation builds wind turbine; Minnesota church to do the same.
Jane Greer


While many Unitarian Universalist congregations have installed solar panels as a source of renewable energy, the First UU Congregation of Ann Arbor, Mich., has gone a step further. The 578-member congregation installed an 85-foot wind turbine in its parking lot in November. The wind turbine, along with 48 new solar panels, will enable the congregation to save up to 20 percent of its annual energy costs, according to Dave Friedrichs, chair of the congregation’s renewable energy committee and a professional builder.

The wind turbine and the solar panels are the first and second parts of a three-part project that will include the construction of a renewable energy plaza. The plaza will offer a park-like space close to the church entrance that will honor project donors and educate people about the importance of renewable energy.

Founded in 1865 in the heart of Ann Arbor, the church is now situated on a 45-acre plot just south of the city.

The process leading to the wind turbine started in 2003, according to Thom Bales, the congregation’s executive director, when two church members attended the annual meeting of the American Wind Energy Association. Several congregants, including Friedrichs, became interested in the possibility of using wind and began conducting wind tests on the property using an anemometer.

The momentum for the project slowed temporarily when the congregation built a new religious education wing but picked up again in 2007 with the formation of a renewable energy committee and the creation of a plan including wind power.

What followed was several years of congregational and community meetings and permit applications. The first hurdle was addressing anxiety about the project within the congregation. “People had a lot of questions,” said Bales. “They wanted to make sure that a tall tower wouldn’t detract from the beautiful buildings and grounds and that the noise level wouldn’t disturb neighbors.”

Another objection was the cost. The entire project, including the solar panels, wind turbine, and renewable energy plaza, was projected to cost $95,000 after energy-saving rebates. The wind turbine was budgeted at $30,000. Since the wind turbine would contribute less than a quarter of the anticipated 20 percent savings in the congregation’s annual energy costs, some believed it wasn’t worth building. “It was the middle of the recession and some folks understandably expected the project to yield a positive financial return on investment for the congregation,” said Bales.

The project was funded almost entirely by congregants through the sale of personalized paving stones that will be inscribed and used to build the renewable energy plaza. The plaza is scheduled to be completed by Earth Day on April 22, 2011.

Bales said that the interim minister at the time, the Rev. David Keyes, helped re-frame the argument about cost by saying that the turbine was a symbol of the congregation’s values. “He called it ‘the steeple of a new century,’” Bales said. “We also see this as an educational opportunity for both people within the congregation and the community at large.”

The Rev. Gail Geisenhainer, the congregation’s senior minister, agreed. “This won’t save us much money,” she said. “It’s about educating. We’re trying to make seeing a wind turbine more normative in Washtenaw County.”

Geisenhainer said that opposition to the wind turbine within the congregation was actually useful. “This wasn’t a unanimous decision,” she said. “We let ourselves talk about it clearly and fully enough and we moved past difference and got to clarity. We are affecting the public discourse partly through the quality of the conversation we had to make this happen. We’re learning how to make the hard decisions that we’re going to need to make to affect the climate and protect the planet.”

Wind turbines come in a broad range of sizes, ranging from turbines on the back of a boat to huge utility-scale installations and wind farms. The Ann Arbor congregation’s turbine is considered a small wind system, generating 2.5 kilowatts. Its blades are six feet long and the turbine sits atop an 85-foot pole in the church parking lot, the highest and most open point on the property.

It took several days to assemble the turbine and get the electrical wiring completed but only two hours to actually put it up. “There were people who wanted to be there and missed it,” said Mark Doman, a congregant and engineer who volunteered for the project. “Once the crane arrived it was a matter of hooking onto it, lifting it into the air, and dropping it onto the anchor bolts and bolting it down.”

The turbine is in an area of the parking lot close to a busy intersection. The noise that it generates blends in with traffic noise, said Bales. It’s also not as visually obstructive as might be expected, he added. “When my wife came to pick me up the day after the turbine was installed, she didn’t even notice it. We’re so used to seeing telephone and utility poles everywhere that seeing the wind turbine pole wasn’t that unusual.”

The energy the wind turbine and solar panels generate goes into the grid, or standard energy system, managed by Detroit Edison. “The utility company purchases the renewable energy credits generated by the solar panels and gives Net Metering credit for both the solar and wind outputs,” said Friedrichs. “One way or another, the church gets credit for every kilowatt hour it generates.”

Although renewable energy sources are important, said Friedrichs, the biggest impact on the environment will come from building in a more energy efficient way. “Energy efficient facilities are important, and the better they are the easier it will be to make an impact with whatever renewable-energy generation might be possible.”

The Ann Arbor congregation isn’t the only UU congregation exploring wind as a source of renewable energy. The 58-member Nora Unitarian Universalist Church in Hanska, Minn., broke ground for its new 20-kilowatt wind tower in November. The tower, which will be located on the church’s property, will be 120 feet high and the turbine will have 31-foot blades. When completed, it will generate one and a half times the energy needed for the church. Since the church could not qualify for a USDA small wind grant as a non-profit, it decided to form a for-profit enterprise for the purpose of energy production. The for-profit enterprise did succeed in getting the USDA grant. The church is the only shareholder in the newly created Prairie Beacon Incorporated.

The wind turbine in Hanska will become operational in the next few months.

The total cost of the Hanska project is expected to be around $95,000. However, after the USDA grant and federal stimulus money, the net cost should be between $50,000 and $60,000, said Darrell Hinsman, a church board member and a driving force behind the project. The church was able to get a line of credit, backed by church CDs, to pay for the project.

Like the Ann Arbor church, the Hanska congregation initially had doubts about the wind turbine. “I have to commend our congregation for looking to the future and taking a risk,” said Hinsman. “It’s one of the biggest decisions we’ve had to make. What united the congregation is that it fits in with our principles of respecting the earth. It really made us put our money where our mouth is.”

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