Initially, Tom discounted the idea of a wind system because of the high cost of the components and installation. But the newly introduced incentive program adopted by the California Energy Commission (CEC), which offered buy-down rebates for small wind systems, inspired him to take a second look.
He crunched the numbers and discovered that the state’s rebate and the $2,000 federal tax credit would cover 50% of the system’s cost. “We never thought we’d see the day when wind power was affordable,” Tom says, “but we were thrilled when it was finally within our reach.”
By 2003, Tom and Robbin had saved what they needed and were ready to commit. After visiting several homes with turbines and weighing all the options, they decided on a grid-tied system without battery backup. “We realized that a stand-alone wind system with batteries was going to require a lot of maintenance as well as have higher up-front costs, and while we could have dealt with that, we decided it was more important to give back to the community,” Tom says. “It made more sense to feed our excess power back to the grid rather than charge batteries in a stand-alone system and waste any excess power generation.”
An online advertisement led the couple to a small installation company in nearby Tehachapi, and after the initial consultation, they hired the crew to install a 10 kW Bergey Excel-S turbine on a 60-foot, guyed tilt-up tower. According to manufacturer estimations, this turbine, with their class 5 wind resource, could produce enough electricity (more than 1,400 kWh per month) to support their electricity needs.
The Houchens chose to site the tower approximately 90 feet east of the house—far enough to lower the tower as necessary but close enough to minimize voltage drop in the wire run to a well shed, which houses the Xantrex GridTek 10 inverter.
Tom tapped into his local resources and purchased a used tower for $1,200 from the Tehachapi Wind Farm. This tilt-up tower—which features a pulley system and a hinge at the base—was hauled to the site in two pieces. Though the tilt-up design required more area for the footprint of the guy wires, the promise of easier turbine maintenance justified the choice for Tom. “Being able to maintain the wind generator at ground level rather than having to climb the tower was important to us,” he says.
To keep installation costs down, Tom and his brother used a trencher to dig the trenches themselves, which were needed to run the cable from the tower to the well house. They also dug the holes for the tower’s four anchors—which had to be 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep for adequate anchoring in the friable desert soil.
Working with the installer proved frustrating as time went on. “The crew had the technical know-how to do the actual installation, but it was a rather unorganized operation. We ended up having to fetch the parts from all over the valley and use our tractor trailer to haul some equipment to the site,” Tom says. “It took about six months to get the turbine up and running versus the one month promised, and slowed the rebate process.”
Adding to the aggravation, Tom and Robbin had to wade through miles of red tape with their local utility, Southern California Edison (SCE). “The state put all the laws and regulations for net metering and rebates in place, but it seems that they failed to arm some utility companies with systems and procedures to handle residential installations,” Tom says. “[At that time] we, like many homeowners in the region, were [renewable energy] guinea pigs for Southern California Edison.”
For months, Tom and Robbin took turns going back and forth with SCE to work out the kinks with the grid connection. But even after the system finally went online in October 2004, they were plagued by countless billing errors. “They didn’t have a billing system for net metering, so they had to do it by hand,” Robbin says. “For the first couple of years, we received handwritten bills and crude spreadsheets of our usage.”
They learned to look for the fine print and keep tabs on their usage. After months of statements that showed zero balances, a bill for more than $1,100 arrived in the mail. “Apparently, if at any time you produce more than you use, you are defaulted to a yearly bill,” Tom says. “It was really just the utility’s way of making the net metering process easier on them. It took three months to sort out that mess and settle the bill.”
Though their system initially produced more electricity than they used, the tide later turned. Adding two 2.5-ton air conditioners pushed their usage past their system’s production. But since they had been unknowingly defaulted to a yearly billing cycle, they were completely blindsided by the final bill.