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Lodi resident Bill Swearingen looks to alternative energy and starts his own wind power business

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Posted: Saturday, June 18, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 3:16 pm, Fri Jun 24, 2011.

While staring up at the 135-foot-tall wind turbine that is spinning like clockwork, Lodi resident Bill Swearingen can't stop smiling as he describes how the turbine's blades are taking the ocean wind sweeping through the Montezuma Hills and turning it into energy.

Swearingen recently installed two wind turbines at E.B. Stone, a fertilizer company west of Rio Vista. While describing the project, large turbines stretch across the hills behind him, all moving even though it is a relatively slow wind day in the area.

"Wind in Rio Vista is one of those things that is a pretty safe bet," he said.

But when Swearingen started WPS Construction in late 2008, it was anything but a safe bet.

Unlike solar energy, which has become increasingly common, wind power still only produces a small amount of the country's energy. In 2004, only 1.5 percent of California's electricity was produced by wind turbines, according to the California Energy Commission.

He still decided to make the leap after the economy started to take a hit. Before that, he installed koi ponds.

"How many contractors went broke or reinvented themselves in the last five years? I chose to reinvent myself," he said.

When Swearingen looked at alternative energy, he felt there were many contractors in solar power, but wind turbines were a somewhat untapped market.

He spent two and a half years studying the industry, including training in Oklahoma and at University of California, Davis.

Part of the reason he studied so long before installing a turbine is because the projects are so large, and there are many laws and requirements for installation.

"You only get one shot. You don't want to go in and blow it, and put something up that doesn't work," he said.

Swearingen started pounding the pavement and talking to people about the benefits of the clean energy in 2008, but he did not receive any jobs for three years.

"My wife asked me, 'Why don't you do something easy?' Because it's not been easy," he said.

But he didn't give up, and in late 2010 he got three jobs all around the same time.

First, he installed a small turbine in Woodland. Right after that, E.B. Stone asked him to install a small turbine to serve as a trial run.

Then, E.B. Stone asked him to start on his biggest project yet. Over three months, he installed a 50-kilowatt-hour turbine built by the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company Endurance Wind Power.

He plans to use this model in other installations. The blades are 30 feet long, and from the top of the blades to the ground is 132.5 feet. When standing directly under it, there is just a light hum.

The new turbine started spinning in March. The goal is for the two turbines to eliminate the company's $40,000 annual electricity bill.

So far, the turbines are meeting that goal. Bill Crandall, who owns the plant, received his May bill, and it was only $11. For May 2010, they paid $5,400.

The first, smaller turbine cost about $104,000, and the other is $385,000. With a 30-percent federal rebate and a PG&E rebate, it will take about two years to pay back the debt, Swearingen said. The turbines are expected to keep spinning for about 25 years.

The fertilizer company is also using their green approach in energy to market their business. Sales have increased ever since the company trademarked Wind Powered Organics and added it to their bags, Brad Crandall Jr. said.

"There has been a huge movement to organic and sustainable fertilizer, so the idea of renewable power is attractive to our customer base," he said.

Swearingen has plans for other turbines at power sewage treatment plants, reclamation districts or wineries that tend to have huge water bills and are usually located outside of cities in more rural areas.

He also hopes to work with the Rio Vista School District to teach students about wind power and encourage them to consider it as a career possibility. Many of the people who construct and service the hundreds of turbines in the area come from Midwestern states.

"We can create local jobs because there are not a lot of local jobs," he said.

Some may look at the ladder on the turbine that stretches to the top of the turbine, and wonder why Swearingen would choose such a risky profession. He said it feeds his adrenaline addictions.

"I could set a solar panel on the ground or the roof, but that's not much of a thrill. A flaw in my psyche is I have to have something to make me feel alive," he said.

Throughout his life, Swearingen has never been afraid of a big project or a challenge. He spent eight years after college skiing in Mammoth, where he met his wife, Lenora.

For years, he would go to Alaska in July and commercial fish to make a supplemental income. There were four times during the trips that he was fearful for his life, including one time when they were in a 36-foot boat with 18- to 25-foot walls of water around them.

He also had a near-death experience on a fly-fishing trip in a rural area. An angry mother grizzly bear was feet away from him, and upset he was fishing in her fishing hole. His fishing buddy had a gun ready to shoot, but then the bear turned to check on her baby cubs, which were squealing.

"I'm glad I survived. When you get through those things, little stuff doesn't bother you," he said.

He grew up in the San Fernando Valley before moving to Reno. He then moved to Galt about 10 years ago because of a business opportunity, and then to Lodi five years ago.

Swearingen has a daughter who will be a junior at Tokay High School, and his son is entering Lodi Middle School.

His wife, Lenora, has gotten used to him taking risks and starting large projects.

"You know how people say 'thinking outside of the box'? She accuses me of not knowing there is a box," he said.

Ever since he started the business, he now looks at a light breeze across his face differently.

"Whether it is doing construction or fishing in Alaska, in every job I have had I have hated the wind. My attitude has completely changed. It's a great opportunity to celebrate the wind," he said.

For more information on Bill Swearingen and his company WPS Construction, go to www.wind-turbine-installation.com.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodi news.com or read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/city_buzz.

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  • Kevin Paglia posted at 8:59 am on Sun, Jun 19, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 1880

    As these are going on full scale building of wind farms and solar farms can be done. There is very interesting progress being made on off shore power sources like wind and wave generators which some countries are already using. I'd love to see a "green community" competition funded by the top 2% earners and who ever else believes in it (voluntarily) where they throw in a certain amount every year so the pot grows. This pot would be won by the community that goes that 90-95% green first. different categories to adjust for city size and population. How about extra federal funds for schools that meet the 90-95% category?

    The transportation industry is going to be the hardest to win over to green tech but there are developments there. I know there is some bias with this website but interesting possibilities still http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/02/solar-boats-ships-pontoons-ferries-solar-panels.php
    In the automotive industry there are new and more efficient engines being developed. I said somewhere else that there should be a yearly tax reward for the car company that sells the most 50MHP cars a year and which sells the car with the MOST mph a year. As the auto industry proves the power of some of these concepts can ignite a aviation revolution http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303635604576393270636772588.html
    Can you imagine the bragging rights for the first "green" airline?

    But I do realize all this is a mighty big day dream. The only way any of this would happen is IF something catastrophic occurred to our current power industry making us horse power minded Americans change our mentality.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 8:40 am on Sun, Jun 19, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 1880

    Brian, I think that a wise spread of all the possible alternative powers is good. I would kind of worry about the long term implications of man-made microwaves being beamed towards the Earth. Just seems like the opening to a disaster movie.

    Here is what I think the future could look like for a balanced alternative power solution:

    First thing should be an aggressive campaign from the government to ENCOURGE, not force, residential usage of solar and rooftop wind turbines. This can be easily achieved by securing some outspoken celebrities to completely fit their house then campaign about the benefits. A second step would be to to offer five year tax incentives from the time they are installed, structured something like the charitable deductions where if you spent 30K on the alt. power then 5% of that a year is a tax write off.

    Second phase of this would be to encourage businesses to follow suit with their own encouragements. But since businesses get so many tax breaks already I think something more in line with a social encouragement would be needed. We've seen the Energy Star labels on appliances. I think businesses who meet a certain level of green, like 90-95% should get a special proverbial feather to stick in their hats as bragging rights and advertisement power.

  • Brian Dockter posted at 7:15 pm on Sat, Jun 18, 2011.

    Brian Dockter Posts: 2740


    I did read something of the sort about how they are looking int o a bat detourant
    around the turbines. I'm not against wind power. It is a very old technology that has proven itself. However, solar power does seem to be the wave of the future in providing alternative energy with solar units orbitting the Earth and sending it back via microwaves.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 9:02 am on Sat, Jun 18, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 1880

    Bill, if you are reading this have you looked are residential projects for homeowners likes these http://www.alternative-heating-info.com/Rooftop_Wind_Turbines_Do_You_Have_What_It_Takes.html

    I would think something along this line might be a nice boost to your business plan, especially after the first few are done and LNS does an article on the savings from them.

    I bet they would even be bat safe.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 8:56 am on Sat, Jun 18, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 1880

    I would imagine it would be simple enough to design a kind of sonar warning signal for bats, a frequency they don't like or such, that would keep them away from the turbines.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 8:55 am on Sat, Jun 18, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 1880

    Because bats are ugly.

    Relax it's sort of a joke.

  • Brian Dockter posted at 7:57 am on Sat, Jun 18, 2011.

    Brian Dockter Posts: 2740

    Wind power is still only produces a small amount of energy. Yet the construction continues on these turbines even though they are directly responsible for the rise in insect populations because of falling bat populations. And we don't hear a peep from environmentalists.

  • Brian Dockter posted at 7:51 am on Sat, Jun 18, 2011.

    Brian Dockter Posts: 2740

    Thousands of bats have died at the blades of wind turbines. Many farmers are experiencing increasing damage to their crops because of insects that bats eat. And many many birds of prey have fallen victim to these spinning turbines.



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