Turbine makers are starting to promote pint-size installations that can take a house or small business off the grid or take a bite out of an electric bill. For people who live where the wind howls — and where government subsidies can be had — home-brewed wind technology holds promise.
First off, you need a separate tower for your turbine – never try to fix it to the side of your house. Next….. You winch the tower, drawing guy-wires taut as though raising a tent.Once the setup is upright, the turbine blades start turning.
The basic rules of thumb for a good site include winds of at least 12 miles per hour at 100 feet above the ground (what Energy Department wind maps and other sources label Class 3), an open space away from large structures set on at least an acre, and a distance of 800 feet or less to a building where the electrical equipment can be housed.
In many areas, a structure more than 35 feet tall requires a zoning or building permit, and be warned that most localities will take some time to wrap their bureaucracy around a small wind project.
Experts say a small system is ideal to pair with batteries for an off-grid, weekend getaway cabin. You can also buy larger systems of 10 kilowatts and above that can take over power production for a modern house or provide power to a farm or another business.
You have wind
Like their gargantuan cousins, small wind towers are best installed in very windy places where they are likely to spin day and night.
If you think you have wind, you probably don’t. If you can tell stories about wind, you probably have enough.
Unlike the big turbines, small ones are straightforward enough that expert installation is not strictly required. At least one manufacturer offers a system that arrives compacted to fit onto a shipping pallet, with instructions to unbox the parts into a working power system.
Installers help customers examine wind maps and assess their wind resource, pick the right tower and turbine, decide if rechargeable batteries are needed, erect the equipment and connect it all to a home’s electrical system and, if possible, the electric grid.
Richard Murphy, a retired engineer who put up a 35-foot tower topped by a small turbine at his Augusta County, Va., home, said he talked with his neighbors before the system went up.
“They’re often concerned about what it looks like,” he said, adding that he was lucky to be able to point to a nearby cell phone tower as an example, a comparison that he said alleviated most concerns.
Another question that arises often concerns noise. Murphy said his system is inaudible at 600 feet. From the demonstration blades spinning above him came a faint hum that was noticeable only with concentration; passing cars on a highway in the distance were louder and similarly faded into the background when the topic changed.
Cost and Government incentives
A small system with batteries today costs about $7,500 fully installed, or $10,000 to $15,000 with solar panels that complement the wind output. For a 10-kilowatt system that avoids batteries by hooking to the electric grid, typical installed costs range from $48,000 to $65,000.
With such high costs, subsidies are an important driver of installations. Federal renewable energy incentives that cover home solar installations and large-scale wind farms don’t pay out for small wind, he said, but there are a handful of states that offer subsidies: California, Oregon, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Illinois.
In areas with plenty of wind and state money, a system can pay for itself in five years, Bergey said. But without that help from behind, payback can take up to 35 years — unacceptable to virtually any investor, though he said his company’s systems should run for 50 years.
With the right subsidies, 20 million U.S. households could effectively use small wind.
Waiting for Congress
The American Wind Energy Association says the small wind industry grew 14 percent last year. Solid data are not available for the years before that, the group says, but annual growth is estimated at between 14 and 25 percent each year for the last decade.
It is very much a fledgling industry, one that has seen far fewer subsidies than other renewables like small solar or large wind. Interest in the technology has grown this year, with inquiries up 50 percent over last year. But sales have been flat compared to last year, likely because the necessary incentives are not in place.
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