12 Jul 2010: Report

With a Boost from Innovation,
Small Wind Is Powering Ahead

New technologies, feed-in tariffs, and tax credits are helping propel the small wind industry, especially in the United States. Once found mostly in rural areas, small wind installations are now starting to pop up on urban rooftops.

by alex salkever

The Solarium, a new 8-story apartment building in New York City, is part of a new wave of green buildings in Gotham. Its exterior is made from 100 percent recycled material. The burnished floors are sustainably farmed bamboo. The apartments lack bathtubs in order to save water. Perhaps the most novel green accoutrement of the Solarium, however, is a small, black windmill perched on a short pole rising from the rooftop. Made by WindTronics, the windmill went live in April — it is one of the early beta units from the Michigan startup.

The company claims a single windmill can supply as much as 30 percent of a household’s annual power needs if winds average roughly 10 miles per hour. That is a brisk steady breeze but even homes averaging lesser amounts (5-9 mph winds) can receive significant electrical outputs of 15 to 30 percent of annual power needs. The Solarium’s wind turbine will power light fixtures in common areas and a rooftop theater for residents. “It has no noise and no vibration,” says Cyrus Claffey, the CEO of Clareo Networks, a real estate technology and design company that researched and planned the project for the Solarium’s developers. “It is bird friendly. And it has a great design. Power kicks in at a much lower windspeed than comparable products.”

WindTronics Turbine
The gearless WindTronics system generates energy at the blades’ tips and can be installed on a rooftop.
This WindTronics windmill represents a new wave of technology innovation sweeping through the small wind industry. This innovation combined with national, regional and local incentives, as well as significant cost reductions in installations and products, is driving fast growth for small windmill makers. In 2009, despite an abysmal economy, the U.S. small wind market (turbines with rated capacities of 100 kilowatts or fewer) grew by 15 percent, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). That growth included an increase of 20.3 megawatts of new capacity and $82.4 million in sales.

The 2009 tally pushed the total installed capacity of small wind turbines in the United States to 100.2 megawatts. (That’s only equivalent to one-fifth the output of an average coal-fired power plant in the United States. But more than half of that capacity came online in only the last three years, making small wind one of the fastest-growing renewable energy resources around.) This adoption is being driven by government incentives, improved zoning procedures, consumers’ growing affinity for residential clean energy, and emerging financing mechanisms. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act expanded available federal investment tax credits for small windmills to 30 percent of the total cost of a wind system, an enormous boost that puts small wind on equal footing with the fast-growing residential solar industry.

“You can add the federal credit on top of state level rebates that can be 20 percent to 25 percent and that pushes the effective price of installing a small residential wind system down to $15,000 on average,” says Ron Stimmel, the legislative affairs manager for AWEA. With such a system, he notes, consumers are effectively pre-paying their electricity bills for decades. According to Stimmel, most windmills have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years.

To date, most of the growth in small wind in the United States has come in rural and semi-rural areas. This has been due to the requirement for many types of small windmills to sit atop poles that rise at least 40 feet above
To date, most of the growth in small wind in the U.S. has come in rural or semi-rural areas.
terra firma. Rural areas have long been more permissive of these types of installations. Looser zoning codes in those areas have allowed farmers to put up windmills without having to go through permitting hoops — or angering neighbors who might have to look at the spinning systems. Even in these types of rural regions, however, penetration remains below 5 percent and room for growth is enormous.

Some rural states have embraced wind at a policy level. Vermont, for example, became the first state to implement a feed-in tariff (FIT) for small wind systems. This tariff guarantees that small wind farmers can resell excess power back to the big utilities at above market rates.

According to AWEA, roughly half of all small wind power additions in 2009 were in the U.S., and the country has more than three times as many small wind manufacturing companies as the next closest competitor, Japan. While the U.S. may lead in small wind innovation, the rest of the world is looking to catch up. Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, China, Germany and Holland all have significant numbers of small wind technology companies.

At present, the United Kingdom and Canada have the most well-developed small wind markets outside of the United States. But 33 countries have put in place FITs for small wind power generated by homeowners and small busineses who wish to sell their power back into the grid. Such tariffs are designed to promote the installation of smaller scale renewable power projects. These countries include most of the developed world and emerging giants such as China and India, but also a number of developing economies including the Philippines and Kenya. International policy and finance bodies are pushing hard to bring small wind systems to isolated rural communities, particularly as a complement to solar installations. The World Bank has undertaken an aggressive program to push small wind to developing nations in South America, Asia and Africa as part of its Renewable Energy in the Rural Market initiative.

Many existing small wind companies have global dealer networks, and renewable energy project finance is now finally catching up, allowing dealers both in the U.S. and abroad to offer buyers financing options to defray costs or maximize tax benefits. “The primary step is going to be distributor financing,” says J.J. Carrasco, a principal at Atoll Financial,
Thirty-three countries have put in place feed-in tariffs for small wind power from homeowners and businesses.
which signed a deal in 2009 to underwrite purchases of small wind turbines sold by Helix Wind. While Atoll plans to launch its projects in the U.S., “We are also interested in bringing U.S. energy applications in developing markets such as China and Brazil,” says Carrasco. Other investors and financiers, like Carrasco, have taken a keen interest in small wind. Over the past five years, venture and private equity investors have poured $252 million into U.S. small wind companies, hoping to reap substantial rewards as the market lights up and more homes, commercial buildings and farms turn to spinning blades to lighten their electric bills.

In the U.S., Stimmel and other industry experts believe farmers and others in out-of-the-way tracts will continue to put up tall poles and windmills at increasing rates, effectively hedging themselves against often volatile electricity prices. But smaller windmills are moving closer to the city centers in less dense metropolitan areas and are popping up like mushrooms in exurbs on smaller plots of land of less than an acre.

Take the case of Nancy Tabor. The co-owner of McClane Electric, a small alternative energy contracting firm located near Las Vegas, Nev., Tabor signed up as a dealer for Arizona-based Southwest Windpower in January, 2009, after the new federal tax credit for small wind became law. In the wake of the credits, Southwest Windpower secured a financing vehicle for its dealers, allowing homeowners to more easily borrow money to pay for wind turbine installations.

Several years earlier, the city of Las Vegas had passed new permitting procedures that made it much simpler for homeowners in some areas to
A Hawaii company seeks to produce wind power by capturing flutter and vibration in a stretched membrane.
receive approval for wind turbines on plots of land as small as a half-acre. Tabor has installed several units and says many more customers are eager to put up a windmill, pending the requisite collection of wind data for their proposed sites. “Out here, you have really good winds in many places, particularly with a little bit of elevation. It’s an excellent place for these types of projects,” says Tabor.

The arrival of more advanced systems, like the WindTronics device, could herald deeper penetration into urban areas previously considered unusable due to the chaotic nature of the breezes and the long periods of relative low winds. The WindTronics system, which resembles a fancy racing bike wheel, is vibration- and noise-free. Birds readily recognize the windmill, and it can be installed on a rooftop, eliminating the need for tall, unsightly poles. More importantly, according to WindTronics, it begins to generate power at wind speeds as low as two miles per hour, five miles per hour less than more traditional windmill designs, and it can continue to generate power at wind speeds as high as 42 miles per hour, nearly 15 miles per hour higher than standard shut-off speeds for most wind turbines.


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WindTronics is hardly alone in trying to reinvent the small wind turbine. Hundreds of startups and incumbents right now are vying for traction in the nascent market. The vast majority of these small wind players are located in the U.S., making the country the capital of small wind innovation. Systems either proposed or in production range from very standard four- and three-blade systems, to bicycle-wheel designs like that of WindTronics, to vertical-axis windmills that catch wind power in spiraling motions. A novel wind-power startup based in Hawaii, Humdinger Wind Energy, seeks to produce wind power by capturing flutter and vibration in a stretched membrane, a method akin to capturing the energy produced by the snapping of a flag in the breeze.

This upswelling of innovation bodes well for the future of small wind and could help bring a wind-driven glow to many more homes and buildings in the not so distant future.

POSTED ON 12 Jul 2010 IN Business & Innovation Energy Oceans Pollution & Health North America 


Let’s run a couple of numbers. The Windtronics system produces about 100 watts (or a little less) in a 10 MPH wind. (See slide 9 at http://www.windtronics.com/pdf2/April-Presentation-Energy-Information.pdf ) If you average a 10 MPH wind for 12 hours per day with negligible amounts the rest of time, then the system will produce 1.2 kWh of electricity per day. If we use a standard rate of $0.10 per kWh, then the system produces about $0.12 of electricity per day.

If we use the suggested retail price of $6495, we can calculate how long it will take to pay for itself by reducing your electric bill.
$6495 divided by $0.12 per day = 54,125 days = 148+ years.

If you don’t have any mechanical problems over this time period, it only takes a little over 148 years to get your money back.

What’s behind door number 2?

Posted by Bill Butler on 12 Jul 2010

Bill, I think your numbers are off. For starters, the WindTronics turbine is estimated to generate 2000 kWh per year in Class 4 wind areas. You seem to be underestimating that amount significantly. Second, there are large chunks of the country where power costs a lot more than $0.10 kWh -- and many of those places, along the coasts, are actually areas where the winds are best. Third, you fail to take into account Federal tax credits and state rebates. When all those are rolled in, you are looking at an average payback of between 10 and 15 years in many cases -- assuming that electricity prices remain constant. If they go up, then you're comparable payback time drops considerable.

Also, it is possible that this turbine could produce even more than 2000kWh. In some places, winds are regularly well over 10 mph (Hawaii, for example). The WindTronics can capture higher winds far better than existing turbines. Is it as cheap as buying coal fired power? No and it won't be for a while. It's also not the only system out there that is really interesting. But you paint a very biased picture.

Posted by Alex Salkever on 12 Jul 2010

Another numbers comment -- if the NYC Solarium building is 8 stories high and there are at least 2 households per floor, that means at least 16 households will be getting electricity from the rooftop wind turbine. However, according to the article, "a single windmill can supply as much as 30 percent of a household’s annual power needs if winds average roughly 10 miles per hour. That is a brisk steady breeze but even homes averaging lesser amounts (5-9 mph winds) can receive significant electrical outputs of 15 to 30 percent of annual power needs."
Using these numbers, the amount of power generated by this wind-turbine PER HOUSEHOLD is small indeed. I'm not sure I can see this project as an example of sustainable progress.

Posted by Sallan Foundation on 13 Jul 2010

Location really matters, because the energy in wind increases as the cube of its velocity. Small turbines like this serve a small niche, and that's a good thing. What would be unfortunate is for them to siphon scarce resources away from measures that, while less glamorous, are usually far more effective and scaleable, such as weatherizing buildings, waste-heat capture, appliance and equipment upgrades, glazing retrofits, etc.

Posted by David Foley on 14 Jul 2010

The American Wind Energy Association has been working with manufacturers of small wind turbines to establish a certification system because some vendors have been making claims that are quite optimistic. Readers can learn more about the efforts to establish such a certification system at the website for the Small Wind Certification Council: http://www.smallwindcertification.org/

Here is a link to small wind turbine equipment providers by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA): http://www.awea.org/smallwind/smsyslst.html

Finally, Home Power Magazine just published an excellent guide to home scale wind turbines in their June/July 2010 issue. The single issue is available for $8.95 at http://homepower.com/store/?page=item&pid=2

Posted by Jim Martin-Schramm on 15 Jul 2010

I entirely agree with you Mr.Alex Salkever.

In a very interesting article, The Future of Personal Wind Turbines,Environmental Graffita, GetFacts not Hype brought out lucid analysis of small wind turbines and their future:

“Green energy for the environment is a hot topic today, and now it’s becoming even more a reality for the USA, UK and for Canada. Small wind turbines for homes and small businesses are finally here, and they take on a smaller form than their predecessors, for they can be easily mounted on a rooftop or pole. They also can be tied to the national grid system, thereby selling any excess back to the electric company.

In past years, wind turbines and wind farms were used more by India and Germany, but recent results show that the United States has taken over the top spot. The United Kingdom is seated at a respectable number 5 as a country having the most functioning wind turbines. But typically countries have had such devices on farms, on the plains, near mines, offshore and other places with wide open spaces. That is changing. A good part of its location use was due to the fact that the turbines were very large, disrupting the landscape, and causing local opposition, and that too is changing.

In the past, wind turbines have been primarily Horizontal Axis Wind Turbines (HAWTs), or Vertical Axis Wind Turbines (VAWTs) that came with a host of challenging problems. HAWTs were difficult to install and transport and approximately 20% of the transportation cost was added to the equipment cost.

VAWTs did not fair much better, for they had blade failure due to fatigue and changing parts could be difficult depending on the design of the VAWT. One VAWT subtype generally required some external power source because the starting torque was so low. Moreover, both the HAWTs and VAWTs required additional expensive equipment. HAWTs needed an additional yaw control mechanism to turn blades and nacelle toward the wind, and filtering was needed to suppress signal clutter of radar installations, because the reflection of the tall towers could affect side lobes there. VAWTs had additional structures or parts so that downward thrusts that cause stress could be eliminated. These units along with other subtypes such as the helical twisted VAWTs and those with rotating sails are still used and will not be completely in our past, but they will not be the only wind source available in the near future. Small wind turbines for residential use and small business use can help supplement home and business owners thanks to emerging new technologies.

Designers have been hard at work to create a less obtrusively visible turbine that has a 20-year life span, usually a 5 year warranty and is not as cost prohibitive as its former cousins.

Some small-scale, home-based turbines are already being used - BBC News reported in Oct 2005 that 7,000 turbines were already in use based on households that had been given grants and paid for 1/3 of the total cost. The source noted that the typical household saw a reduction between a quarter and a third of its annual bill and that some places in the UK could benefit more depending on the location and if it was more particularly windy”.

Andrew Nusca is very optimistic about small wind turbine market, Small wind turbine market to double by 2013, study says, (smartplanet Dec 10, 2009):

“Individuals and businesses around the world have shown growing interest in small wind turbines to provide green energy, according to a new report.

A niche industry, the small wind turbine market saw $203 million in revenue in 2009, and is expected to grow to $412 million by 2013, according to Pike Research’s Small Wind Power report, released Wednesday.

On a cost-per-watt basis, small wind turbines can be less expensive than solar panels, according to the report, written by senior analyst David Link. That fact is especially true in the United States and United Kingdom, where government incentives and tax credits make the market more favorable than in years past.

Put the WIND to Work: To get inexhaustible, pollution-free energy which cannot be misused.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India
Wind Energy Expert

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 11 Sep 2010

Today's nukes are at the point where they could be cheaper than coal if various legislative impediments are removed. Tomorrow's GenIV IFR nukes could turn all our nuclear waste and warheads into 500 plus years of carbon free power.

Baseload power, not depending on the vagaries of the weather or seasons. Reliable power, 24 hours a day.

In a world rapidly approaching peak oil and in need of more clean electric trains and cars, we're going to *need* a stable grid. It's time to stop playing with renewable toys and start getting serious.

Posted by Eclipse Now on 28 Sep 2010

to Eclipse:
First my ma told me that they were talking about running out of oil 50 years ago, I am not convinced there will be a peak oil. Second: We just had a major power outage here in southern California. If we are so intelligent, why can't we create a stable grid with mostly underground cable, or even wireless transmission of power. My thought is, non greedy thinking only. Have a localized power system for every neighbor hood. There is a way and it is not involving maximizing profits, but rather good for everyone.

Posted by Terry Smith on 28 Sep 2011

Also remember that wind speed increases dramatically with height (assuming that we are
talking about multi-story buildings here)

Posted by Kishore Joshi on 04 Oct 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
alex salkeverABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Salkever is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Wired, Outside, and Inc. Magazine. He is the former technology editor for BusinessWeek.com and covered environmental topics for AOL DailyFinance.com.



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