Business: Blowin’ in the Wind

Two major Spanish companies specializing in wind technology have settled here, hoping to cash in on the alternative-energy craze. With a volatile oil market, could Philly become the new … Holland?

Penn has developed a comprehensive sustainability plan, and the people implementing it no doubt mean well. But what the university is really buying is bragging rights. When people in the power industry try to explain it, they often use the lake analogy: All the energy — clean or dirty, renewable or not — gets mixed up in one pool, and everybody draws from that when they turn on the tap. If you want to make sure the freshmen dorm is actually powered by wind energy, you’ve got one option: Put up your own turbine on campus, as a few Midwest colleges have.
“We know we can’t buy wind energy for our campus directly,” says Dan Garofalo, environmental sustainability coordinator at Penn. “The theory is that this money is channeled to wind-power producers and developers to bridge the gap between market rate and current costs. It’s almost like a charitable investment.”  
University sales helped Community Energy get established, but the company kept digging, drilling for customers who might voluntarily pay more in order to “do their part” to help the environment and nudge the U.S. toward energy independence. Community is now working with PECO and a number of other utilities around the country to market renewable energy to customers, asking consumers to sign up to voluntarily pay a premium on their electric bills — as little as $5 extra per month — to theoretically, if not literally, buy wind energy. PECO Wind is one of the more successful voluntary programs in the country, with nearly 40,000 subscribers.

THE TOP OF Locust Ridge sits nearly 2,000 feet above sea level overlooking the Ringtown Valley, in what was once coal-mining country in Schuylkill County. There’s still some coal to be had here, and with prices rising, they’re mining it again. On the way down the road toward Mahanoy City, you can catch sight of the horizontal scar of a strip mine on the opposite ridge.
It’s here, just over 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, that the two new Spanish big boys in town have come together. The Locust Ridge Wind Farm, owned and operated by Iberdrola, is a snaking two-and-a-half-mile mountaintop trail along which 13 Gamesa turbines spin strongly on a beautiful warm day. At the base of a giant turbine tower, a technician wearing a bright yellow safety harness steps aside to let me into the tower, so I can peer up the nearly 300-foot ladder he’s about to climb to work in the turbine’s nacelle. I didn’t think you could get vertigo from looking up.