Chasing Windmills: The Not-So-Impossible Dream

On Thursday, Joe Guasti hailed his 100th windmill.

His construction company in Oak Hills, Calif., erects the steel giants for homeowners in the high desert of San Bernardino County. It all started in his backyard.

"I'm getting a big kick out of it," said 47-year-old Guasti. "My dream that I've had since high school has come true, where we could produce power for our family and not have to have an electric bill for it."

In December 2000, Guasti realized his childhood dream, christening his very own backyard windmill. He hasn't paid an electric bill since. At 100 feet high, the blades of the backyard windmill carve out a 22-foot-diameter circle in the sky, supplying electricity to the Guastis' five-bedroom, four-bathroom home and all its electronic trappings.

"We have two side-by-side refrigerator freezers, two washers, two dryers, two or three computers, a large screen television … two or three iPods plugged in at any time, " said Joe's wife, Beverly Guasti, as he chuckled by her side like a mischievous kid, tickled by what he'd done with the wind.

"The kids just don't know … that you could unplug something or turn it off. We don't have to pay for power. So they just use it," Beverly said.

An Idea That Caught on Like the Wind

When neighbor Gus Sansome got wind of what the Guastis were doing, the concept charged the retired engineer's imagination.

"I'm not a tree-hugger. I'm not an activist," said Sansome, but he liked the potential savings. Nine months later, with a newly installed windmill astride his home, he too paid his last electricity bill.

Then came the backlash.

Neighbors complained of the noise, the threat to birds and, most of all, the eyesore to the much-cherished desert scape of Oak Hills, about 90 minutes outside of Los Angeles.

In the local paper's editorial column, a robust community debate ensued. Some found the windmills terribly noisy. Others didn't mind. Some found them an offense to the pristine landscape. Others took pride in the sight of clean energymakers on the horizon. Nobody disputed the allegation that birds got caught and killed in the path of the blades, but some pointed out that airplanes killed more birds.

Energy independence, financial savings and environmental preservation were, and are, the Guastis' counter to detractors. While most of the outraged stayed outraged, other neighbors started calling up with questions. Then the orders started coming in.

The Guastis run their construction business out of their home, building houses and carports, add-ons and just about anything that comes their way. But they are the only ones in town who specialize in putting up windmills. Increasingly, as more and more families turn to the wind, windmills are their core business. Joe says he likes it that way.

"It's my little private campaign to help our country wean ourselves off other countries' imported energy," he said.

As for the community protest, the Guastis haven't heard a peep in the last 18 months, even as the county saw its 100th windmill erected.

"Our neighbor behind us at first didn't like them," Beverly said. "Now he has one."

Negative Metering

A 10-kilowatt windmill, like the Guastis', can supply most residential homes with all the electricity they need. But there's a catch. Actually, there are two. The first is simple. It doesn't work if your home, and your windmill, are not in a windy area. Period.

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