Wind power on a smaller scale carries potential

July 13, 2010 By Steve Everly

If Abigail Stutzman has anything to say about it, small wind turbines will someday dot backyards across the Midwest.

The fifth-grader at Starside Elementary School in De Soto, Kan., has an interest in the environment, including helping to recycle much of her family's trash. But she has bigger plans, inspired by her school's recent installation of a turbine.

"When I grow up, I want to live off the grid," she said.

Much of the attention given to wind energy is for large utility-scale full of huge, three-blade generators. That's where most is likely to be generated.

But the idea of producing wind energy just for a home, business or small town continues to fire the imagination of those seeking self-sufficiency.

Small wind turbines have blades from 12 to 56 feet in diameter. One popular model for smaller homes has 12-foot blades, which can produce about 30 percent of the home's power.

Small-scale wind projects accounted for less than 1 percent of installed wind capacity in 2009. But the concept has plenty of supporters who believe small turbines can provide an important supplement to utility-provided electricity.

Small projects can face big obstacles, and progress has been much slower than many hoped. Initial costs can be daunting and take more than 15 years for a homeowner to recover.

Turbines need more maintenance than some other types of renewable energy, such as . And the trees and buildings in urban areas like Kansas City, Mo., mean that a standard-style turbine, to take full advantage of the wind, could need a tower more than 100 feet tall, increasing costs and possibly violating zoning laws.

The turbines also can be noisy, another strike against them in urban neighborhoods.

August Huber III, CEO of commercial building company A.L. Huber, said small turbines eventually would find their place. He has installed a wind turbine at his company's Overland Park, Kan., offices.

The turbine, which uses scoops instead of blades to gather the wind, is designed for slower wind speeds in urban areas and is quieter than a traditional small turbine.

Similarly, DST Realty, a major Kansas City real estate developer, is planning a demonstration project at 18th Street and Broadway that will have two turbines designed for urban areas. A traditional turbine has a horizontal generating axis, designed for stronger winds. But the DST project's turbines each will have a vertical axis.

As to how well they will work, DST Realty Vice President Steve Taylor said, "We'll see."

Prospects look brighter in more sparsely populated areas.

August Spencer and his wife, a retired couple who live in eastern Jackson County, Kan., bought a traditional small turbine more than a year ago. The Spencers had enough land to put their turbine on a 45-foot-tall tower, which should give the average eight- to 14-mile-an-hour winds needed to be efficient.

"It can be real good like today, when I'm receiving 20-mile winds," Spencer said recently.

That experience can be replicated, said the experts, if you want to make the investment and do your homework.

Susan Brown is manager of business development for the Energy Savings Store in Lenexa, Kan., which sells solar collectors and wind turbines. Brown, who once helped lead opposition to the coal-fired plant that KCP&L is now building near Weston, has a wind turbine at her home north of Platte City, Mo. She said the benefits go beyond the economic.

"Every kilowatt I'm producing, I'm not giving asthma to a child," she said.

But she discourages many with an initial interest in buying a wind turbine. Despite the Midwest's wind resources, a turbine can be a worse buy than a solar-energy system, depending on location and on tax credits and other incentives.

An installed 2.4-kilowatt wind system for an average residence can cost about $20,000 and supply about a third of the home's demand for electricity. Despite a 30 percent federal tax credit, Brown figures repaying the cost would take roughly 16 years.

That can make it competitive with a solar-energy system, which also qualifies for the federal tax credit. But solar gets the edge when Kansas City Power & Light's solar rebate is included. This can knock 20 to 25 percent more off the price. (Check your city's utilities to see if they offer additional rebates.)

"We usually don't recommend wind turbines for Kansas City," Brown said.

However, a growing number of schools are showing interest in turbines, although producing power often is a secondary reason. The Starside Elementary turbine in De Soto will recharge batteries and run an electric train, but its main purpose is teaching students about renewable energy. Students asked for the turbine and helped raise money for it.

"We worked long and hard for these things, and the kids are really proud of it," said Paula Henderson, a counselor at the school.

Kansas City Kansas Community College is slightly more ambitious, with a wind turbine that can produce about $100 worth of electricity in four days. It also is used to train students who want jobs repairing wind turbines.

The potential of small wind is clearer in places like Beloit, Kan., northwest of Salina, Kan., and in the heart of wind country. This is where All Things Exterior -- which sells siding, roofing and windows -- has invested in its own turbine.

By taking advantage of the brisk wind and the renewable-energy tax credits, along with depreciation rules that reduce the price for businesses, the company expects a payback in seven to eight years, said Troy Odle, the company's account manager.

All Things Exterior believes there is enough of a market for small turbines that it is planning to sell them.

"It's not because we want to be tree huggers, but it's the right thing for America," Odle said.

Small-town America, in fact, has had success with smaller wind projects.

Rock Port, Mo., and Greensburg, Kan., don't own turbines, but they do get electricity from wind-generation projects developed for them. The Greensburg project produces enough power for 4,000 homes.

The projects were developed or financed by John Deere Wind Energy, which had been a major developer of wind energy for small towns but recently announced it was getting out of the business. The John Deere subsidiary, which has offices in Johnston, Iowa, declined to reveal what was behind the decision.

Interested small towns could buy and operate on their own. This has been done across the country, including once in Kansas with mixed results.

Jetmore, north of Dodge City in western Kansas, had $250,000 gathering little interest in a bank account and decided to buy two reconditioned turbines to provide some power to town residents.

They began operating last year, but after a few months the blades fell off one turbine, which more recently has had vibration problems. The company that sold the turbines is making repairs, but the town no longer expects a payback in seven to 10 years.

"We found out why no one else had done one of these," said Lea Ann Seiler, director of economic development for Jetmore. "But I still think it was worthwhile."

What could be the future is companies like BTI Wind Energy in Greensburg, the Kansas town that was destroyed by a tornado in 2007. The community is emphasizing the use of renewable energy as it rebuilds.

Brad Estes and his family had the town's John Deere dealership, and they decided to buy a wind turbine as they rebuilt. That experience led them to start BTI, which sells turbines and aims to help others get into wind energy.

BTI now extends into several states, offering help to homeowners, businesses and schools.

"In the wide open spaces of Kansas, we should be able to do this all day long," Estes said.


How small-scale wind energy stacks up in the Midwest:

• Strength: Consistently strong wind in many rural and semi-rural areas.

• Drawbacks: Buildings and trees make wind less efficient in urban areas. Wind systems can be relatively high maintenance. Connecting to the grid to sell back any excess power can be tricky.

• Cost considerations: A homeowner could need more than 15 years to recoup a system's initial costs. But a 30 percent federal tax credit helps, and depreciation provisions help businesses further. Stable institutions such as schools also can get long-term financing to spread out the costs.

• Short-term potential: Limited in cities, but alternate turbines designed for urban areas are being tested.

• Long-term potential: Better in rural areas.

Explore further: Smart wind turbines can predict the wind


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2.5 / 5 (2) Jul 13, 2010
I'm not sure about this. I'd really have to know more about the details of ownership, like what kind of maintenance is involved, what would it do to my property tax (especially on the Missouri side of the border where they have this really stupid personal property tax), will home owner's insurance cover it, how would it affect my insurance price if it is covered, etc. Keep in mind that they're talking about building big towers in tornado alley. Tornados are a fairly small risk, but 60 MPH straight line winds are common around Kansas during storms. I wonder if these things come with some kind of automatic cut-off. I'm sure you don't want it still spinning in storm winds. I also wonder how rugged these are in terms of hail damage, another common aspect of Kansas weather. For now, these just seem to be too expensive. The same questions apply to solar panels, especially in regard to hail. How expensive would repairs be?
1 / 5 (1) Jul 13, 2010
One more thing I'd have to think about: I lived in that area for over 15 years before I move here to warmer weather. :) They have lots of bad ice storms there (several per year usually), and minor ice storms are common. I assume that you'd have to shut down any kind of windmill in icy conditions for several reason. You wouldn't want ice flying off of a moving blade, and you wouldn't want the blades out of balance from ice build-up or the windmill could shake itself to pieces. Overland Park and Lenexa Kansas use mostly burried electrical lines because of the ice, and Overland Park has a city ordinance regarding the maximum hight of free-standing signs (partly for asthetic reasons, but also because of the danger of falling ice and wind-blown debris from tall signs).
not rated yet Jul 13, 2010
It's refreshing to see an article on this subject that recognizes the limitations, both geographic and financial, of wind power. So often people present a single alternative energy solution that only works in their backyard, but it is implied that it will work everywhere. There's a sad example of wind-fail nearby. Close to $100K of tower and turbine, but 85% of the time it is just standing there motionless. Instead of providing 80% of the farm's power requirements, it's running closer to 7%.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 14, 2010
Another advantage of decentralized power generation is that it avoids the great plain's infrastructure problem. Very few good wind sites have adequate grid interconnect. But every farm has a connection to the grid sized appropriately for a small wind plant. In addition, wind is best harvested by a widely distributed system.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 14, 2010
A 16 year payback only because there is a 30% tax credit, otherwise it would be 20+ years. Hope the wind mill lasts that long.

People buy these things more because they are cool toys, not for real practical reasons.

It would be nice if, when the grid power is down due to a storm etc., it could at least keep the food in your fridge from spoiling or allow your furnace to run like a backup generator, but that would require additional infrastructure (cost) and still can't be relied upon.
Like I said regarding similar other articles, most "renewables" like solar and wind are fair weather friends.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 18, 2010
This info is not up to date. Here is a much better solution. Cheaper, around $5-6000, and can be used in most urban settings.
Also see their site. These go on sale at ACE hardware stores in the next couple of months:
not rated yet Jul 18, 2010

Vertical wind gens are not eff at all, Horizonal ones like commercial ones with 2-3 blades are 4-10x's as eff as VAWT's.

What I don't understand is why they cost so much. I can build a 2kw unit for $2k with a very good profit margin.

For those handy you might want to build your own, Google Axial flux to find many designs, plans, parts and help. Many good groups like Axial-flux yahoogroups among others. I suggest joining these as many details in a good instillation, ect needed.

To buy is at about $1.5k/kw among others.
not rated yet Jul 18, 2010

The below system is not a good wind gen and way too costly for it's output. Don't get taken.

This info is not up to date. Here is a much better solution. Cheaper, around $5-6000, and can be used in most urban settings.
Also see their site. These go on sale at ACE hardware stores in the next couple of months:
not rated yet Aug 07, 2010
How about windbelts? They are scalable,and more efficient than micro wind generators.No fancy electronics,just a coil and rectifier.
I can see them mounted on peaks of roofs and over the gutters.See: http://en.wikiped...Windbelt

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