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Joining the net-zero ranks

Crisfield, on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, is probably best known for the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake, a political schmooze fest of legendary proportions. But the town soon will have another claim to fame. It’s about to be the first municipality in the Delmarva region powered by a windmill.

The wind turbine towers above everything else in town, even the water tower with the giant crab painted on it. The blades that turn in the breeze off Tangier Sound will soon—as soon as it passes some tests--generate enough electricity to run the nearby sewer plant and then some. And that’s the idea.

The turbine will feed more electricity into Delmarva Power and Light’s grid than it takes to run the sewer plant, the street lights, city hall, a fire station, a senior center, the library and so on. And that means the municipal electrical bill will be zero for years to come.

Chris Burgess, managing partner of Alpha Energy, an Annapolis firm that helped Crisfield develop the project, says it’s "fiscally very powerful to have your energy costs baked in for a small, strapped municipality for 20 plus years."

"They’ll know exactly how much they’re going to be paying for power here at the wastewater treatment plant and through all the other municipal meters for over two decades," he said.

P.J. Purnell, who was mayor when the town fathers started on this project 10 years ago, says that’s exactly what they had in mind. They were looking to get out from under a mountain of debt at the time and struggling to pay municipal electric bills that could run "20 to $25,000 a month," primarily to run the sewer plant.

At the same time, Noah Bradshaw, then a code enforcement officer for Somerset County and now a Crisfield city inspector, was at a Maryland Energy Administration conference on solar power in Baltimore. As he tells it, he raised his hand and asked, "What are you doing about wind?"

Someone from the Maryland Energy Administration called him the next day, he says, and pretty soon the administration put an anemometer on top of the town’s water tower, about 156 feet in the air.

"It stayed there for a year," Bradshaw said. "It took a snapshot, I think every 10 minutes, of the wind, and over that year we wound up we had an average of over 14 miles per hour."

That was enough to make the wind turbine, which stands better than 300 feet high, practical and the city won $4.1 million in state funds to build it.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

Patuxent River Naval Air Station, across the bay in St. Mary’s County, worried about the effect the tower would have on its radar. This was about the same time a commercial operation was applying to put industrial size wind turbines--600 feet high--nearby in Somerset County.

Former Mayor Purnell said the Navy was so involved in the fight over the commercial turbines they “kind of like pacified us."

They said, '''Well, you know, yours is only going to just touch 300 feet. Yours is okay.'"

And then Delmarva Power and Light wanted a compatibility study. Purnell said it was another hoop to jump through that set them back a couple more months.

Delmarva spokesman Nick Morici said company engineers looked at the design to make sure that "when the wind turbine is fully functional and ready for operation it can marry up nicely and marry integrate into our grid very nicely as well as have it serve the constituents there in the town of Crisfield to supplement their energy use."

But now the turbine’s up, the blades are spinning and soon they will feed electricity into Delmarva’s grid. If all goes according to plan Crisfield will become the first municipality in Delmarva with an electric bill of $0.00.

Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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