April 16, 2009 in Washington Voices

Businessman teaches consumers to give back to the grid

Ryan Lancaster Correspondent
 
CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON photo

Eduard Ribic is framed in the blades of a windmill at his shop near Airway Heights on April 6. Ribic has been involved in developing, building and selling wind and solar power for almost 30 years.
(Full-size photo)

Watching an electric meter spin backward is more thrilling than it may at first sound. Just ask Eduard Ribic, who’s been doing it for nearly 30 years now.

In that time Ribic has built up Ribic’s Wind and Solar, a small operation specializing in wind, solar and small hydro power systems located off Highway 2 just east of Airway Heights. “This is a great area for alternative energies,” said Ribic. “It’s very open on the plains and you’ve got both sunlight and a lot of wind.”

While growing up on his family’s vineyard in Austria, Ribic became fascinated by the klapotetz, a wooden windmill that makes a clacking noise to scare birds away from the grapes. His interest in wind power grew until the mid-1970s, when he worked with energy generation in Pullman for a few years before moving to Airway Heights and opening up shop with his wife, Rachel.

It’s hard to miss the large metal workshop, which is flanked by windmills twirling in the West Plains breeze atop 30-foot towers. These machines generate more energy than Ribic could ever hope to use – hence the backward-running meter. “Last year I had 6,500 kilowatts left over,” said Ribic. “I didn’t use it up, so it went back to Avista and someone else got it.”

Ribic refers to Avista’s net metering program, which measures how much electricity a customer buys from the utility and how much they produce themselves by using their own generating equipment. The meter keeps track of the net difference and credits the owner for a portion of their share.

Chris Drake, Avista’s residential program manager, said any residential or small commercial electricity customer generating at least some of their electricity is potentially eligible for the program. Drake said about 50 customers are currently signed up and more are taking advantage every year.

Alongside net metering, Avista offers a renewable generation incentive, which gives credits of up to $2,000 a year to ratepayers in Washington and Idaho who produce electricity with qualifying wind, solar or other alternative energy systems.

Drake said that because the RGI was implemented fairly recently it’s still a relatively small program, with about 12 new customers drafted in 2008. Even so, Drake expects word to spread as more people learn about the plan. “We saved somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 thousand kilowatt hours through this system last year,” he said. “So far, these are fairly small numbers, but they could very well double next year.”

This is Ribic’s hope as well. Despite a lot of recent interest in alternative energies, business has been measured. He said that while many he speaks with are concerned about power bills in the high hundreds, they’re also hesitant to shell out the initial costs of a generation system, even though it might pay them back long-term. “A lot of people are coming in and looking at their options, but they don’t know which way to go because of the economy,” he said.

Ribic said he’s been encouraged by the interest, but fears energy shortages may be inevitable. He spoke of an energy seminar he attended four years ago, where speakers warned of widespread blackouts and brownouts by 2011 if speedy improvements weren’t made to the nation’s energy infrastructure. “That’s only two years away and I don’t see much having changed,” he said.

Incentives programs like those offered by Avista as well as renewable energy plans started by the Obama administration may help, said Ribic, but they won’t do any good if underlying attitudes don’t change. “People keep plugging in and plugging in without realizing it has to come from somewhere,” he said. “It’s like milking a cow but not feeding the cow.”

After raising a large family on a limited income, Ribic said he’s become conditioned to saving energy in every way possible. “I raised five kids and I always told them when they left a room, the room doesn’t need light, people do. Turn it off. It’s just logical thinking,” he said.

Ribic said he also uses solar power at his home just three miles from the business. “I don’t believe in telling somebody do this or that if you don’t do it yourself,” he said.

Grass-roots efforts like this, he believes, could be the answer to what he sees as the nation’s coming energy crisis. Instead of creating new power plants, which can take up to 10 years to build, the private sector could start putting energy back into the power grid, which would then distribute energy through already existing lines.

“If they would have started this sooner, maybe 30 years ago, then we wouldn’t be dependent on a lot of other things that are causing us to struggle,” said Ribic. “I see some critical times coming.”

Reach correspondent Ryan Lancaster by e-mail at rklancaster1@yahoo.com.


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