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Keys company packages solar and wind power

It's hard to miss the white and blue wind turbine spinning its way through the day atop a low-slung office on the bayside of Big Coppitt.

The turbine is one power-producing part of what Benson Electric Technologies is calling its Green Energy Pod. The other power producer is a collection of photovoltaic panels pointed toward the south, making the most of a nearly cloudless and sunny spring day.

And then there's the repurposed 40-foot-by-80-foot shipping container the turbines and six solar arrays -- two PV modules each -- are sitting atop. It serves as storage for the equipment before installation and in case of a hurricane, and it can do double-duty as storage for other stuff in between. It's also home to the equipment that makes the whole system purr.

The pod is a self-contained "renewable resource energy device" that Benson’s founder, master electrician William Benson, hopes will catch on with some commercial businesses in the Keys.

It’s designed to produce up to 5,000 watts per hour from solar and wind energy, which most likely will average out to about 30 kilowatts a day. Adding wind to the mix extends its capacity beyond the six or so hours of daylight a solar-only system draws in optimum conditions.

The system has been connected to the building’s Keys Energy Services meter.

Through the process known as net-metering, Benson estimates the solar-wind system will lower the building’s electricity bill by about $150 each month as the renewable system offsets the building’s usage of traditional power.

Utility spokesman Julio Barroso says Benson is the first commercial, nongovernmental customer to hook a solar system to Keys Energy’s grid.

Benson also has a smaller version in mind, made up of a 20-foot-long shipping container, as well as ones that are all PV panels or all wind turbines.

The turbine he’s using is a helix design on a vertical axis. It’s supposed to do better in turbulent wind and reasonably well in low wind. It’s also very eye-catching, with white sails spinning on a bright blue platform.

Both the panels and the turbines are designed so they can be safely stowed away in the container should a damaging storm loom.

(While PV systems should be engineered to stay in place during hurricane winds, Benson says, owners have to consider the damage that windborne debris may do the panels themselves.)

The turbine is on a winch. The PV panels are movable, making the system more flexible than a traditional rooftop installation.

A basic model of the size on the Big Coppitt roof would cost about $75,000, he says, before applying any federal or state tax credits, rebates or other incentives. His hope is to get that price down as renewable energy technology in general -- and, he hopes, his concept in particular -- catches on.

“The time is right” to pursue this kind of business venture, says Benson, explaining why he’s back at work after retiring in 2006 after nearly three decades doing electrical work in the Keys. He started working on the idea about a year ago at a friend’s suggestion, and just got it set up on Big Coppitt last month.

He and his wife, Sarah, have been splitting their time between their home on Sugarloaf and their home in Costa Rica. Renewable energy is common in Costa Rica; in fact, the couple’s mountain vista includes a wind farm, and the country also regularly taps solar and geothermal power sources.

Benson says he’s applying for a federal stimulus program grant that would cover 30 percent of the cost of a pod. The grant would be in lieu of the federal tax credit currently available for renewable energy projects.

“A commercial client … would be able to get a check from the U.S. Treasury in lieu of a tax credit for 30 percent of the total cost including installation,” he says. “It’s set up so that a business can assign the credit to a bank in repayment of a loan. They get the check 60 days after their application is approved. The application is made after the pod is grid connected, but if they start the job in 2010, the have a year or so to complete it.”

A system would take a few months to put together and deliver, he says, with wind turbines taking up to four months’ lead time. Solar-only could be done in two or three.

With the turbine up, his Big Coppitt installation -- the storage container is anchored to the roof of the building -- reaches right up to the county’s 35-foot height limit.

Benson foresees a similar installation for other businesses, or a couple of containers stacked on a commercial property, possibly even helping to power a restaurant’s energy-hungry coolers.

Benson’s a big fan of the steel shipping containers, which cost a few thousand dollars each, depending on size and condition. There’s a huge surplus available as close as South Florida’s ports. They’re incredibly tough and versatile, even being converted to modular housing and offices in some places.

While Benson hopes Keys residents appreciate the energy package he’s designed, he’s quick to point out that colleagues Kris Madro (Kristoff Electric Technologies) and John Grodzinski (Unlimited Electric Technologies) are available for more traditional installations. The two used to work for Benson, and now all three are under one roof.

Benson Electric Technologies and the other two firms are at 175 Overseas Highway, Big Coppitt Key (mile marker 9.5). Benson can be reached at 296-3940.

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