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.

The second challenge is more complex. Although the total amount of electricity generated in a year by their windmill exceeds what the Guastis need, sometimes it's not windy when they need electricity.

The solution lies in a deal with the local power company. The Guastis are connected to the same electrical grid of power lines that supply electricity the old-fashioned way, from power plants that emit greenhouse gases that exacerbate global warming.

When it's windy, the windmill supplies their home with clean green electricity. When it's not, the local power utility steps in and supplies the electricity they need.

But when it gets really windy, it gets really, really interesting. Then, their windmill creates more electricity than their home can use, and the excess electricity goes onto the local power grid. That pollution-free energy powers other homes in the community, reducing the load on the polluting power plants. And what's more, the Guastis' electric meter runs backward, literally.

"When it's making more power than our home can consume, our electric meter actually -- the little disk inside -- actually spins backward and the number clicks down," Beverly said.

In effect, they get credit for all the electricity their windmill contributes to the grid. So when the wind dies down, they have energy credit with the power utility that they cash in to light up their home. They say that they never use up all the extra energy they generate when it's very windy. Every year, they give away more electricity than they take.

The Bottom Line

Windmills are not cheap. Today, a windmill like the Guastis' costs between $50,000 and $60,000. California's incentive programs reduce that price tag to somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000.

So how long does it take for the free electricity to match the substantial cost of purchasing a windmill? Estimates range from six years to 12 years.

The cost/benefit analysis in terms of environmental health is even more imprecise. According to the Web site of Environmental Defense, a not-for-profit, bipartisan organization that seeks practical solutions to environmental problems, 80 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions come from power plants.

Switching one home from fossil fuel electricity to wind power won't make a dent, but in San Bernardino County, one home has turned into 100 homes, so far.