Small wind system tackles big issues

As I’ve said before, the market for small wind turbines doesn’t get much respect on the larger renewable-energy stage, and that’s probably because many of the products out there don’t live up to their claims. I’ve seen a dozen or so newcomers hoping to corner the small-wind market with their vertical-axis wind turbine models but so far nothing major ever comes of their efforts. Part of the problem with small wind is that you typically need to erect a standalone pole — separate from any residential structure — because the turbines cause very annoying, and over time destructive,¬†vibrations. The pole itself adds extra cost and is unsightly if you’re planning it for any suburban or urban area, so these systems only end up at cottages and other rural dwellings where there’s lots of space and neighbours can’t complain.

Noise is also an issue, yet another reason to locate it a comfortable distance away from a residence. Vertical-axis turbines are being designed to address such problems, but progress — or perhaps it’s just acceptance — has been slow. Cleanfield Energy, Raigatta Energy, Tesnic are just a few of the Canadian companies going after this market.

A Grand Rapids, Michigan-based company called Cascade Engineering hopes to overcome some of these technical issues with small wind but using a design that improves upon traditional horizontal-axis turbines. Cascade’s Swift turbine, which has limited distribution¬†in both the United States and Canada, has five blades instead of three that are connected by an outer ring. The ring, the company claims, dramatically reduces noise and vibrations by diffusing air flow as it travels up the length of each blade to the tips (which is typically the source of noise).

The Swift turbine has a rated capacity of 1.5 kilowatts and supposedly generates up to 2,000 kilowatt-hours annually, which isn’t that much considering the typical home in downtown Toronto consumes about 10,000 kilowatt-hours a year. You’d need five Swift turbines, at $10,000 a pop after rebates, to offset all the electricity your home uses every year. If you sold that 2,000 kilowatt-hours into the Ontario grid at 11 cents per kilowatt-hour under the province’s standard offer program, you’re talking a 45-year payback. Not good, to say the least.

The bottom line is that I’ve yet to see a small-wind turbine that makes sense in a grid-connected scenario, at least if your plan is to sell electricity back to a jurisdiction like Ontario that has feed-in tariffs. If your plan is to use the electricity to merely offset your electricity use (i.e. net-metering), the payback is even worse (if you can imagine). So really these products only make sense in a rural or cottage setting where getting electricity to where you want it might require paying the local utility $20,000 to put in a new hydro line. So, for these products to be of any economic use in urban or suburban settings, the price has to come down by more than half — preferably two-thirds — before it begins to become attractive.

6 thoughts on “Small wind system tackles big issues”

  1. There may be another use for these systems. There are many rural locations across Canada that use propane for heat. Recently, when oil was over $120, delivered propane prices were above $25/GJ, and the heating systems were delivering heat at almost $40/GJ – equal to about 14.4 cents/kWh. One can certainly use a grid connect – at a significant installation cost and get the 11 cent feed in tariff, but why not use the wind when it blows, to displace the use of propane for heating domestic hot water and building heat, as the hybrid heating system does. Domestic hot water uses a surprising amount of heat in a year, and it is often the most inefficient heating system in the home. A couple of cheap electric heaters do a good job and could fully load the turbine when the wind blows.. if fossil fuel prices climb back anywhere near where they were, this would provide a good means of reducing GHG and saving some money – even if the payback remains a little long…

  2. I agree that these units will rarely if ever be a good investment on the part of the homeowner. It would be much more efficient, for both environment and wallet, to invest in some sort of wind co-operative, or improve your house itself–$10 000 will buy a lot of efficiency.

    But then, I’ve seen a lot of irrational consumer behaviour around this idea of “green”. Up until now, many people have shown more willingness to nickle-and-dime themselves on gadgets and green-marketed products of dubious utility and envrionmental benefit, than they are in making large, up-front investments that have real environmental benefits and are sound economically. A ten or even twenty year payback is not bad at all when you’re investing in your house; and it’s quite good if you’re willing (as many of us are) to pay more to reduce your footprint. There’s a real consumer psychology at work here: utlimately, our spending decisions come down more to emotion than to rationality.

    In an ideal world, we’d all be investing in only the most optimal technologies, and probably give these turbines a miss. But it’s not an ideal world. If people prefer to spend their money on gadgets like this, let them. It won’t hurt.

  3. I am not sure I would characterize small wind-turbines as just ‘gadgets.’ They certainly have a long way to go, in terms of cost and energy output- but this cost is coming down, slowly but surely, just as it is for home Solar Panels. I say, thank goodness for early adopters who keep these type of ventures afloat, in the hope that at some point it not only makes ‘green’ sense to buy into one, it makes economic sense as well.

    I think, in the long run, it will become cheap enough, and make enough sense from a security standpoint as well, to have a de-centralized power grid, where each home has a combination of Solar and Wind, and grid connectivity for when needed.

    Look at it this way- if it was not for early adopters, the IPhone would still cost $500 (okay- bad example if I am trying to distance Small Wind Turbines from Gadgets;-)

  4. $10,000 is still alot cheaper than buting a Prius and then hoping your neighbors will see you driving it. Of course your coworkers won’t see your house, just what kind of car you drive, and you could always leave the Prius in your driveway to be sure people know how green you are. The reason people buy a Prius instead of another hybrid (and none of the others have a cult following, or even decent sales figures) is that everybody can see how green you are. Consumer psychology should never be underrated. Don’t be the last person on your block without a windmill, nobody will talk to you at the annual block party.

  5. It would be a big help to the small wind industry here in Ontario if the Standard Offer Program rate for solar of $0.42/kWh were extended to include hybrid solar/wind systems in the micro-generating range of systems under 10 kW. Such as system might a bit more affordable for homeowners the amortized cost of rooftop solar is probably just over $0.42/kWh and just under $0.42/kWh small wind. And the benefit to the utilities is getting wind power with out putting stress on the grid.

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