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They find whether you have wind for a windmill

Long considered unwieldy objects and suitable only for quixotic jousting, windmills are steadily reappearing, even on such fashionable outposts as Nantucket Island -- a fact that Ralph Beckman and Jeff Blydenburgh view as long overdue.

Aeolian Kinetics, an unusual company housed here in a recycled jewelry factory, produces wind instruments and computers that help determine whether gusts have enough bluster for a windmill.

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''The cost of electricity, as it increases, makes the price of a windmill seem more worthwhile,'' Mr. Blydenburgh asserts.

While the government provides a hefty 40 percent toward the cost of installing a windmill, the Public Utilities Regulator Power Act (PURPA) guarantees that utilities buy back any surplus energy generated privately at alluring prices.

''PURPA created a phenomenon of windfarming,'' Mr. Beckman says. ''People find a spot where there's a lot of good wind, install some windmills, and sell to the utilities.

''It says that wind energy is a viable way to make money.''

Architects Beckman and Blydenburgh, both graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, spent four years with innovative projects for a nonprofit research institute in Providence as well as with a Canadian wind venture before deciding to sponsor ''wind production'' in a somewhat unusual fashion.

When the nonprofit organization went bankrupt in 1979, they wisely eschewed the hazards of erecting the monoliths themselves. Instead, they developed a revolutionary digital data recorder that ascertains the proper siting for windmills without expensive strip charts.

''This has been a bootstrap enterprise,'' says Beckman with a laugh. ''It started in my basement. We naively entered into a lot of things that common sense should have told us not to -- into electronics, without an electronic background -- with the arrogance that we could do anything.''

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The MS 778 microcomputer created by the pair records wind speed and direction data at preselected intervals, without on-site attention (a relief for wind prospectors, the pair says).

The lightweight, battery-powered field unit can withstand icy -40-degree F. locales, and is programmed in easy-to-learn language.

Aeolian Kinetics wares have since expanded to accommodate everyone from homeowners to government agencies (prices accordingly range from $180 to $600). Clients include Brown University (AK equipment will be used in the new urban laboratory) and the Solar Energy Research Institute.

''The United Nations also has just placed an order,'' Blydenburgh mentions with relish.

The success of the business furthermore permits them to undertake other novel architectural projects. The first commercial passive solar retrofit in Providence of an old rubber mill, which they bought for residential and sundry other purposes, won an award at the fifth national passive solar conference.

''In our case, we wind up hiring ourselves,'' Blydenburgh observes.

Given the wind's ready availability, it is a wonder more windmills don't cover the land, yet Blydenburgh reasons: ''Interestingly enough, there are many people who don't realize the viability of windmills. When it comes to the actual consumer, there are a lot of fallacies and misinformation. Once anyone determines he wants a windmill, 18 months later he can have it generating electricity, whereas a nuclear power plant takes 10 years.''

But as for the prospects of cities sporting windmills from rooftops, he admits: ''The physical liability of a homeowner having a blade come off just doesn't go over too well with the neighbors. In most cities the wind is so unpredictable.''

Throughout the years, windmills have grown into huge machines.

''You can buy a windmill here now, whereas 10 years ago you would have had to import one from Switzerland or Holland,'' says Beckman, adding that prices vary from $3,000 to $10,000, depending upon the energy required and the wind on hand.

''A hundred years ago, if you went across America, every farmhouse had a windmill,'' add Blydenburgh. ''A small windmill will run a water pumper even if it won't produce electricity.''

Will those days ever return?

''It'll be a while before it gets to the mainstream,'' Beckman predicts.

''Basically, windmill homeowners are innovative people. You still have to climb the tower and oil the equipment. But the wind is a resource that cannot be legislated away.

There are enough people who have gotten their feet wet and see they can make money. Who knows where the next push will come from?''

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