Out in the far dirt-road reaches of northern Los Angeles County, the five-member Scott family relies on electricity more than most -- in fact, three times as much.
The Scotts' five-acre spread in Acton consumes triple the power of the typical household in Southern California Edison territory, partly because of the property's size and the need to pump well water. So when rate increases pushed the monthly electric bill over $600 two years ago, Daniel Scott went way beyond the usual energy-efficiency measures: He installed three windmills in his yard.
With a new breed of small, efficient wind turbines, homeowners such as Scott can shrink their electricity bills and provide a tiny assist with California's energy problems. But as Scott found out, getting a home windmill up and running in Los Angeles County is anything but a breeze.
Among the places that permit small wind turbines, the county stands out as having some of the toughest rules, despite a 2001 state law to encourage windmills, according to alternative-energy firms.
Los Angeles County calls for special fencing, lights, bonding and studies that can add thousands of dollars and months of delay to the windmill approval process, manufacturers and dealers contend. In Kern County, by comparison, a homeowner needs only engineering plans, a few hundred dollars and a few days to get a wind system permit.
"Los Angeles County is the worst place in the entire country to try to put in a small wind system," said John Supp, sales director for Southwest Windpower of Flagstaff, Ariz., one of the nation's largest manufacturers of small wind turbines. "You have to jump through hoops of fire with a blindfold on and shell out lots and lots of money."
Supp's criticism is echoed by other companies, and although state officials say they don't keep close tabs on local zoning laws, they hate to hear of anything that might be slowing the growth of wind power.
"We are concerned when any kind of unnecessary barriers are put in place for any kind of renewable energy," said Tim Tutt, technical director of the California Energy Commission's renewable energy program. "The aim is to expand the market for these ... renewable energy sources."
Los Angeles County officials say their conservative approach is appropriate because turbines must coexist with homes. In fact, wind turbines are banned in several spots around the state where the population is too dense, such as San Francisco, and in environmentally sensitive areas. Other places, including Orange County, don't get enough strong wind to make turbines an issue.
Much of north Los Angeles County, however, is considered prime wind-energy territory.
The Energy Commission has been targeting homeowners across the state with slick brochures on the benefits of backyard windmills, but it has paid special attention to Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties because of strong winds (averaging 10 mph) and clusters of people with the land and money to install turbines.
These are not the giant commercial wind contraptions of the San Gorgonio Pass and other blustery areas, which soar 200-plus feet in the air and have rotor blades more than 80 feet long. Home models are usually less than half as high, with rotors under 12 feet long.
Home wind systems cost $5,000 to $50,000 to install, but Energy Commission rebates can trim that bill in half. Add in tax credits, and the windmill can pay for itself in seven years, according to the commission.
Results vary, but Scott said his windmills have cut his family's power bills in half.
Still, the big picture on home wind power is small. The Energy Commission said its incentives have helped generate less than 1 megawatt of wind energy capacity, compared with 15 megawatts of solar capacity. One megawatt is enough to power about 750 homes. A big reason for the disparity is that solar energy works for more homeowners in sunny California. Solar systems also come with fewer permit hurdles.
Yet windmills are cheaper, and manufacturers say there would be more turbines up and spinning were it not for bureaucratic roadblocks in Los Angeles County. At this point, the county has only a handful of home windmills operating.
The windmill law, AB 1207, was designed to eliminate onerous local restrictions, such as the 35-foot backyard windmill height limit that was common around the state. Under AB 1207, residents can erect towers at least 65 feet high on parcels of one to five acres.
But the law still gives local governments leeway to impose other restrictions. Los Angeles County's windmill ordinance, adopted last year, requires lights approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to ward off aircraft and fencing or other measures to ward off climbers. The ordinance also requires homeowners to post a bond to cover the cost of removing their windmills should that become necessary.