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November 30, 2010

Interview: Everyone Knows It's Windy

Small_wind

If you want to hook your home up to renewable energy and solar energy isn't all that feasible, perhaps the answer is blowing in the wind. Ron Stimmel is a small-systems expert with the American Wind Energy Association. He took some time to answer questions about what a typical American homeowner needs to know about wind power.

When people think of wind power they think of vast farms with giant turbines. In contrast, small wind is something entirely different. Can you briefly define small wind?

We're talking about individual turbines used for individual purposes. It's a lot like solar panels in terms of using it to offset your own energy. If you have at least a half acre or more of land and find yourself complaining about how windy it is all the time, then you're probably a good candidate for a small wind turbine.

But how do you know you have enough wind to justify a turbine? It's probably more than just licking your finger and pointing up.

There are people out there who sell and install them who are trained in wind resources and site assessment -- and they can take satellite imagery, survey land features on a particular lot, and give you a good idea of what your output would be for a given turbine at a given height.


As you would with any investment of that size, you want to make sure you do your due diligence. It's not terribly complicated. It's probably a lot easier than getting a new kitchen renovation. That said, it's not for everyone, especially if you live in the city.

You mention a half-acre, but what about people in the suburbs who have a sizable backyard but who don't own that much property?

Sure, a half-acre's just a rule of thumb. It really varies case by case. And not all properties come in nice squares. It's a good idea to contact an installer because there are a lot of variables. There's a list of equipment providers on our website that would be a good place to start.

Which areas of the country are the best for wind?

Turbines are sold in all 50 states, which gives you an idea of how site-specific feasibility is. The Great Plains are very windy. But usually the most attractive areas are states that offer rebates and incentives. Of course with the stimulus bill, as of last year, there's a federal tax credit worth 30 percent of the whole general cost.

How does one finance the project?

A lot of times it's financed through a home-equity loan but there's a new policy called a property assessed clean-energy bond. That gets really into the weeds, but it's getting pretty popular. A lot of the time it's just coming up with that chunk of change in the beginning, even though the electricity is free for the next 20 or 30 years. It's still hard to swallow for homeowners, and that’s why we have these policies in place in many states and at the federal level.

Of course the savings always depend on how windy and how big your turbine is. Most people use it to cut their bills in half. It's always a good idea to use as much energy efficiency in your home or business before using a wind turbine. Insulation, appliances, that sort of thing.

What's something important to know when installing?

The most important thing you can do is figure out where to put the thing and how high to put it. It's just critical. People ask all the time if they can put a turbine on their rooftop, but the wind goes right over it. The turbulence that a building causes basically makes it miss the turbine. You want it to be above any obstacle by at least 30 feet.

What are some of the bigger challenges in setting up a turbine?

It's the permitting. You go through all the trouble of finding the right person to buy it from and finding the right place to put it, and then you run into a zoning board that hasn't dealt with turbines before and doesn't know what to expect. They might make it difficult and even impossible. Sometimes you have to have hearings and produce evidence to reinvent the wheel, even though there are probably 100,000 turbines in the country right now.

Is that because there's just a lack of understanding?

That has a lot to do with it. Our website aims to dispel myths and help communities understand what to expect. Sometimes people will fight until it's done, and in cases like that they end up getting the law changed, which isn't as hard as you think. It sometimes just takes an amendment to a code.

And what about aesthetics?

In order to make a turbine accessible to the wind, it has to be above obstacles like trees and buildings. So it'll probably be visible. And someone will inevitably not like to look at it. So it's a delicate situation. You should help the neighbors understand what's going on and what to expect, what it'll actually look like, and that they’re not noisy at all. It's like having a flag pole but without the clang.

-- Brian Foley

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