Thinking Local About Energy

Mar 22, 2012




There are several pilot projects underway in the Monterey Bay Area exploring the idea of a very localized power source: micro-grids that tap into the region’s wind and sun. 

On the roof of a building on the Santa Cruz Wharf, Mike Issacson walks over to a small wind turbine.  “The reason it’s so small is to get approval from the Coastal Commission.  We actually wanted it to be 20 feet tall,” said Isaacson.  At about half that size, the wind turbine and nearby solar panel stand in stark contrast to the what many people think of when it comes to generating power from the sun and wind.  “People think of these huge wind farms, say in North Dakota, where the winds are howling all the time as being that’s the only place you can put a wind farm.  Well but you see here, it’s turning and producing energy. Or people think of solar, you’ve gotta to be out in the desert in Nevada,” said Isaacson , Director of the Center for Sustainable Energy and Power Systems at UC Santa Cruz.


Looking at an overcast sky, Isaacson points out that like most places, Santa Cruz has sun sometimes, wind sometimes, but neither all the time.   “Why can’t we on a local scale be able to capture whatever it is we have, even if it’s not the best.  We combine these things, and we can do better than if we don’t capture it at all,” said Isaacson.  He says the way to do that is with micro-grids. Taping into power sources that generate just enough energy for a specific area.  Isaacson is working several wind and solar micro-grid projects, including one at Hartnell College in Salinas,  another at NASA Ames in Mountain View, and this one which provides power to Santa Cruz’s Wharf Headquarters.  Wharf Supervisor Jon Bombaci explains how they use the micro-grid power.  “So the windmill charges two deep cycle marine batteries on the roof, and that current comes down into this box,” said Bombaci, “and that charge is transferred to the 12-volt batteries in our GEM Car that we use as a maintenance vehicle out here on the wharf.”  Powering that golf cart like electric car is just the first step toward a larger goal of creating a micro-grid to power the entire wharf.


Before that can happen, this pilot project aims to address some concerns .  That’s because a lack of consistent, howling wind isn’t the only reason there aren’t wind turbines on the coast.  Isaacson says there are also concerns about ruining views, the noise, and turbines killing shore birds like those that flock to the wharf.  “The biggest reason we don’t see wind turbines on the coast is there has never been any kind of scientific documentation of the affect that it has on wild life,” said Isaacson.  Specifically there’s no research on birds, and how they’re affected by the type of wind turbine on the roof of the Wharf Headquarters.   It has a low profile and looks like a cylindrical sculpture. “The wind turbine we have here is a vertical access one, which means it spins on a vertical axis.  Whereas the big ones, say on Altamont Pass, are these big ones that spin on a horizontal axis, and they’re much more difficult for birds to see,” he said.  Through video monitoring, Isaacson will document how many birds, if any, are killed.  Since it went up in November, none have died.  “The idea is to see, can we do it and can we do it without affecting the wildlife.  And if we can, can we scale this thing up so it can serve a useful function, and is it something that can be transposed to other communities, such as the wharf in Monterey, and all the other municipal wharfs along the coast,” said Isaacson.  It could be five years before the entire wharf is powered by an alternative energy micro-grid.  In addition to the wind and sun, by then, it may also get power from the ocean’s waves.