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Published on January 15th, 2009 | by Stephanie Evans

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Generating Your Own Wind Power

So you’ve pledged your allegiance to clean, green energy and are looking for ways to support it.  How about generating your own? 

You’ve probably seen giant, commercial wind turbines, but did you know that you can buy your own mini wind turbine to put in your backyard?
Home Wind Energy

Last year, roughly 7,000 Americans purchased a residential-scale wind turbine to power some or all of their home, farm, or small business. These three-bladed, propeller-shaped generators are around 15 feet in diameter, perched atop a 40-to-100-foot tower, and generate clean, greenhouse gas-free electricity for on-site use.  These "small wind" turbines give individuals a direct way to help the environment while stabilizing, or even eliminating their energy costs and generating their own reliable power.

Benefits and Uses of Wind Energy

Many models of residential-scale wind turbines can be connected to the electric grid so that a consumer has power even when the wind isn’t blowing.  Grid interconnection also means that if the consumer doesn’t use as much electricity as the turbine produces, the excess can be fed backwards into the grid for credit on the consumer’s monthly electric bill.

Small wind systems are most practical for individuals or businesses located in areas with above-average wind speeds, and with at least half an acre of open land to allow the wind to "stretch its legs."  Regions where electricity prices are also especially high make small wind systems an attractive investment.

Small wind turbines are also popular choices for people who live in remote locations, away from the electric grid.  Uses for these off-the-grid turbines include powering cabins, pumping water on farms, and even powering accessories on sailboats.  For these applications, the turbine charges batteries to supply electricity even when the wind doesn’t blow.

Often a turbine will be installed in conjunction with solar/photovoltaic (PV) panels.  Wind tends to blow more strongly at night (when the sun isn’t shining), making wind and solar energy natural complements.

Demand for small wind systems has grown sharply in the past decade to match widening concerns about global warming, rising and unpredictable energy costs, and energy security.  While these driving forces are relatively new, small wind turbines have been around since the 1920s.  Wind power technology has made remarkable advancements since then, and, to make a good story even better, its industry’s high-tech jobs remain firmly planted within U.S. borders.

Small Wind TurbineThe U.S. leads the world in production of small wind turbines, and with the special help of wind “laboratories” at the U.S. Department of Energy, small wind turbines are more durable, efficient, and user-friendly than ever before.  Buying a small wind system is quickly becoming as normal as buying a clothes dryer or any other appliance.  Some turbines even transmit live performance data to your home computer and will tell you if maintenance is needed.

Who Should Buy One?

Small wind systems are most practical for individuals or businesses located in areas with above-average wind speeds, and with at least half an acre of open land to allow the wind to "stretch its legs."  Regions where electricity prices are also especially high make small wind systems an attractive investment.

But what if you don’t have an acre of land?  A lot of suburbanites and city-dwellers ask if they can put a small wind turbine on the roof of their home or even their office building, in the style of other green building tactics.  This would seem to make sense, as it would prevent the cost of purchasing a tower, and you may say, "That’s where my solar panels are anyway…."  However, there are a few important differences between installing a turbine in an open field and on a city rooftop:

  • The wind quality is different on a roof or in the city.  Rooftop ledges create a lot of turbulence, which makes finding the necessary pockets of fast-moving, dense air more difficult.  As a rule of thumb, the hub of a wind turbine should be at least 30 feet higher than anything else in the immediate vicinity to take advantage of the greater wind speeds at greater heights, without interference from trees or buildings.
  • Most roofs are not designed to hold the weight of a turbine.  Nor are they usually built to withstand the constant vibrations that a spinning object will inevitably send though a building.
  • City zoning regulations usually prohibit this type of home improvement (however, the cities of Chicago and San Francisco have recently granting permits for "urban wind" installations).

While these factors can present significant challenges, successful rooftop installations are possible, and a small handful of companies are developing building-integrated small wind systems specifically designed to function under these conditions.  Just remember to take all these considerations into account before deciding to make a small wind turbine part of your green home.

Are There Drawbacks?

The biggest hurdle for consumers is usually the price tag. A turbine large enough to power an entire home can run fromSmall Wind Turbine $12,000 to $55,000 (including installation costs). However, several states offer rebate programs and other financial assistance that can reduce this cost dramatically.  The good news is that small wind turbines last a long time—around 20 to 30 years—and require very little in maintenance costs.

Depending on where you live, the process of obtaining a permit from your city or town to install a turbine may be time-consuming and even fairly expensive.  Some cities have a far more streamlined permitting process than others, so be sure to investigate the requirements before you buy.

Your neighbors may also be uncomfortable with your new turbine for aesthetic reasons, and might even try to prevent you from installing it.  This is why it is especially important to alert your neighbors about your intended project ahead of time, and to explain exactly what they might expect your new installation to look like.  For help, see the American Wind Energy Association Web site. 

Other Considerations

What else would you need to know about buying a small wind turbine?  Make sure the zoning laws in your city or town allow structures like these to be installed.  Equally important, make sure that your neighbors know all of the facts about small turbines, and your project in particular, before they assume the worst.  Also investigate whether your state has any rebate or incentive programs that can help you pay for these often expensive systems.  The American Wind Energy Association is currently lobbying for a federal-level consumer tax credit to help individuals buy small wind turbines.  For grid-connected turbines, check with your power utility to see if they will allow you to hook up your system to the grid, and what sort of regulations they require.

To learn if your property would be a good fit for a small wind system, contact a dealer, installer, or manufacturer.  A list of companies,  and much more information, can be found at the American Wind Energy Association Web site.


Article contributors: Ron Stimmel




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