Are Small Wind Turbines the Answer?

While reading back issues of Sustainable Industries, I came across an article titled “Land of the Free? Permitting Woes Create Longer Timelines and Bigger Headaches for Renewable Energy Developers” by Sara Stroud (October 2009). By “woes,” the author meant the difficult process of finding enough land to build a large solar or wind installation within the timeline set by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other laws and regulations. Another problem is local and state government ignorance of how to establish a renewable energy facility. Wind turbine and solar farms have been popping up all over, but plenty of local and state governments have never gone through the process of setting one up.

The article made me wonder if installation of small wind turbines in yards and neighborhoods could help Americans meet renewable energy goals, so I searched online for “small-scale wind energy development” and found an FAQ published by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). I learned a few things, including the fact that a turbine’s blades need to sit 30 feet above anything within a 500-foot circle. So that means 30 feet above the top of a tree or building. And I learned that despite the prohibitive cost of a small turbine (as much as $70,000, before rebates, to power most of the energy needs of the average American home using 800 kilowatt-hours per month), wind energy is cheaper than solar (at least, according to the AWEA).

If you scroll down that page, you’ll find a Wisconsin Focus on Energy Fact Sheet on rooftop turbines. Near the end of the document, you’ll find a link to a PDF of Small Wind Turbine Success Stories. The typical wind turbine pays for itself in 6 to 15 years and lasts about 30 years. Wind turbines tend to raise property values, not decrease them.

It all sounds like a great argument for DIY wind energy, but the main point I plucked from my reading was that energy conservation is always cheaper than energy production. So if you are thinking of installing renewable energy on your property, get an energy audit first and reduce the kilowatts you use. It will be a lot more affordable to install solar and wind to provide 500 Kwh/month than to provide 800 Kwh/month.

I wonder if there is a way to install turbines on city rooftops, that is, to build a “wind roof” instead of a “green roof.”

How Is This Restoration?

It’s not restoration; it’s one of the methods Americans can use to reduce the need for restoration. The more we reduce our energy use, the less coal we need to extract from our lands (or someone else’s lands) to run our power plants. Installing renewable energy on top of that will reduce the need to extract fuel even more. If the coal remains in the ground, then chances are the land on top of it will remain in a more natural state.

One problem I do have with large-scale installations is their effect on ground-nesting birds. Wind farms have been shown to drive away grassland birds, one of the most threatened groups of birds in the United States.

To answer the question above differently, I could say that small-scale renewable energy installation is a return to the American value of self-sufficiency. If many Americans installed panels or turbines on their properties, we would be less subject to utility rate hikes and to attacks on power plants.