- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Generating power is becoming a breeze for a local restaurant chain. In July, Austin Grill will switch from traditional electricity to wind power — a $1 million move that will make it the first chain on the East Coast to “go green.”

“For a little expense, it will do a lot of good,” said Chris Patterson, president of Austin Grill, who said he hopes the conversion will encourage customers to look to renewable energy as a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuels. “At a certain point, our fossil fuels will be extinct. It just makes sense to use a resource like wind to capture the energy.”

Currently, less than 1 percent of the nation’s electricity is derived from wind energy. With improvements in turbine technology, backing of big companies such as General Electric, and increased consumer awareness, wind power is becoming competitive.

Austin Grill is set to receive 100 percent of its energy from a 44-turbine farm in West Virginia. One turbine will supply enough energy to power its six restaurants. Community Energy, a third-party energy supplier, buys space on the power grid from Washington Gas and Energy Services, and the electricity is distributed through existing power lines.

The restaurant will pay about $40,000 a year until the turbine is paid for. Unlike traditional electricity generation, there is no cost for fuel. Austin Grill will pay operation and utilities fees, which remain consistent over time.

Wind energy is more expensive than electricity derived from coal, nuclear power, natural gas or oil, but the price has dropped dramatically. In the 1980s, the average cost per kilowatt-hour was 40 cents. Today, it is 5 cents.

About 12,000 customers in the Washington area receive at least a portion of their electricity from wind energy, according to Robert Greenlaw, vice president for sales at Community Energy. He said customers are becoming aware of energy alternatives because companies such as Pepco and Washington Gas and Energy Services are branching out beyond traditional resources.

“These companies need to be applauded,” he said. “Both are trying to make renewable resources available to the public. The emergence of competitive energy services is key to the progress of wind energy,” he said.

Energy companies are offering programs that allow customers to buy any percentage of wind power they want. Customers can buy 5 percent of their electricity from wind generation for an extra $5 a month.

By using only renewable energy, Austin Grill will not contribute to local air pollution.

Companies such as General Electric have made it easier for advocates of wind energy by investing in renewable energy and in wind especially. GE has been manufacturing wind-turbine parts for a little more than a year. It recently started a TV advertising campaign touting the benefits of wind energy.

“This technology is well-accepted,” said Dennis Murphy, a spokesman for GE. “We’re excited to add wind energy to our portfolio. It gives customers another option and helps the environment.”

Frequently seen as an alternative energy source, wind power is gaining credibility in Washington, where some lawmakers are eager to look to it as an answer to rising oil and gas prices.

The energy bill passed by the House and being reviewed by the Senate includes an extension of the wind-energy-production tax credit.

Eligibility for the credit is limited to wind facilities that generate power sold into the market. Companies such as Mountaineer Wind Energy, the provider in West Virginia that generates wind for Austin Grill, will receive tax benefits if the extension is allowed.

Advocates want a three-year extension of the credit, which is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.

Technological advances have helped lower the cost of the wind turbines more than 80 percent over the last 20 years, and the tax credit helps bring the cost down more. The turbines can take up about 5 percent of a farmer’s land; farmers get paid a stipend for land use.

While wind energy could never replace traditional electricity, Mr. Greenlaw and other advocates want wind to be a viable alternative.

“Wind is fairly predictable,” he said. “It is not subject to foreign governments and economic slumps.”

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