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(Jeff Vinnick/©2011 - The Globe and Mail)
(Jeff Vinnick/©2011 - The Globe and Mail)

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BMW dealership boasts first commercial wind turbine in B.C. Add to ...

From his office in the Auto West Group BMW dealership in Richmond, Pete Sargent can look out across the lot and watch the first wind turbine installed at a commercial business in British Columbia spinning on the corner.

But he can't hear it - and that's not because there are an estimated 40,000 bees flying to the beehives on the rooftop garden over his head.

"It is very quiet. Actually, you can't hear anything unless you are standing right next to it," he said Tuesday as the company prepared for its official unveiling of the vertical-axis wind turbine that is both cutting the company's power bill and helping with its all-out green branding exercise.

Mr. Sargent, project development manager, said the turbine manufactured by Cleanfield Energy can produce a maximum 80 decibels of noise, but it is closer to 50 dB.

"A car makes more noise just driving by," he said.

At 50 dB, the turbine, which has blades that spin around a vertical axis (it looks more like an egg beater than an aircraft propeller) is quieter than most vacuum cleaners.

And Mr. Sargent, whose company has one of the greenest buildings in B.C., thinks it is the sound of the future.

"I really can see the day when there will be a lot of these around," said Mr. Sargent.

The dealership already has installed solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling technology and rooftop gardens, complete with swarms of honey bees.

But the wind turbine, which is to be unveiled officially on Wednesday, may be the most innovative of the alternative-energy projects, because there were no models for the company to look at in B.C. when it started to study the idea.

Small-wind-turbine technology is fairly well advanced in Canada, but most of it is in operation outside the country.

He said Auto West Group wanted to try the technology because wind power was just about the only alternative energy source the business hadn't tapped into yet, and they wanted to do something new.

It is expected to substantially cut power costs, but the economic picture isn't clear yet.

"We know the geo-thermal will take 12 years to return our investment, and the solar panels will take about 9 years - but with the wind turbine we just can't say yet," he said, because it isn't known how much power will be generated. It all depends on how much the wind blows.

Mr. Sargent said it will take six months to a year to collect the data on power generation that are needed to make the cost-benefit projections.

But the wind turbine, he said, wasn't installed purely for financial reasons.

"The question that was asked [by company founder, Joachim Neumann]was how do you do something that's different, and that's good for the environment," said Mr. Sargent.

"We looked at wind. There is always that stigma associated with it because you think about those big turbines in wind farms … but what we are showing here is there is nothing to fear in this technology," he said.

Mr. Sargent said the manager of a nearby hotel was concerned initially about sound and visual pollution, but the 18-metre-high turbine system has a low profile and it can't be heard over the sound of local traffic.

Emily Moorhouse, wind policy manager for the Canadian Wind Energy Association, said such small wind turbines are still pretty rare in Canada, even though much of the technology has been developed here.

"A lot of small-wind-turbine manufacturers are Canadian. But … we did a market survey last year … and presently they export approximately 87 per cent of their product overseas or to international markets, such as the U.K. and the U.S.," she said.

Ms. Moorhouse said as the public becomes more familiar with small wind turbines, there will be more of them installed across the Canadian landscape.

"There is a lot of interest amongst the public in renewable energy and in small wind and in the potential of generating your own electricity … so it's certainly something that has a lot of potential in Canada," she said.

Ms. Moorhouse said one of the big drawbacks is that many levels of government still don't have policies in place that encourage the installation of small turbines.

Mr. Sargent said it took several months to get all the approvals needed, and there were no tax breaks or other incentives offered by government.

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