Will homeowners in the United States ever find it cost-effective to install residential wind turbines? Find out why our homes are likely to perform better with solar arrays than wind power.
“Renewable energy will never work in the United States,” goes the standard rant of those who consider themselves pragmatists about solar and wind power. They throw up excuse after unsubstantiated excuse to stick with our dirty fossil fuel status quo, while ignoring real science and economics on the issue. Recently I was pleased, but not particularly surprised, to read a story from Bloomberg New Energy Finance that revealed that in Australia wind power is now cheaper than electricity generated from either coal or natural gas. Even when Australia’s carbon tax was not factored in, wind power still beat out the others by 14%. The days of cost-competitive renewable energy are upon us.
Meanwhile, here in the United States, we’re lagging behind, as usual. The truth, when not seen through the coal-colored glasses of fossil fuel magnates, is that energy efficiency and renewable energy are patriotic choices – choices that directly and positively affect the U.S. economy, environment, and security. At my house, we’ve deep-energy retrofitted and added a 4 kW solar array and would have added wind power but for the advice of a local wind installer. He suggested that unless we could get a tower up to the optimal 80'–100' height, where average wind speeds might top the 7–9 mph minimum needed to make the blades spin, we wouldn’t get much out of a standard wind turbine. Living in town like we do, that’s (pardon the pun) a tall order.
That relegates residential wind power to the folks who live in the country, preferably on a ridge top, where a tower can be constructed to get those blades above the tree tops. If you happen to live on the windswept plains, you might have a good spot for wind power, but in most of the country, you’re better off using photovoltaic panels or getting your wind power from your electric utility via a “green source” program. Many utilities will allow you to pay a little extra on your electric bill, and then the utility will source the amount you specify from “green” (i.e., wind, solar, etc.) sources of power. OK, so you don’t actually see those green-sourced electrons at your house, but your fossil fuel-sourced power is offset somewhere in the overall power mix.
Disappointing? Sorry. I know that many of us want cheap, reliable, renewable energy right now, but the truth is that technology like wind power is best suited for utility-scale wind farms, not individual residential turbines. While some recent “innovations” have tried to get around the higher wind speeds needed for the operation of standard, horizontal-axis wind turbines (HAWTs), none have been able to beat the HAWT in terms of cost or reliability.
A Vertical-Axis Wind Turbine (VAWT)
Vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWTs), while beautiful and mesmerizing to watch, look like a recent innovation but have actually been around for decades. While they are able to function at lower wind speeds, and their low-vibration operation allows them to be mounted on some roof structures (obviating the need for a tower), their inherent instability, tendency to stall in gusty winds, and higher cost have kept them from being competitive with HAWTs. Several companies are trying to work out the kinks, but a robust VAWT for residential use still costs much more than a residential HAWT on a tower. Honeywell’s ill-fated Windtronics turbine looked like a large bicycle wheel with fins and was purported to work in 0.5 mph winds, but Honeywell’s marketing didn’t match reality – Consumer Reports estimated that a Windtronics turbine would take 56 years to pay back its original investment.
My advice on residential wind power? Encourage your utility to invest in utility-scale wind farms. That’s the most cost-effective way to generate electricity from the wind. Heck, it looks like that might be the most cost-effective way to generate electricity, period.
Jeff Wilson, author of The Greened House Effect and host of Buildipedia's Everyday DIY series, many HGTV and diy network shows and 25-year veteran of the construction industry, lives with his wife and two daughters in a perpetually half-renovated home in a small college town in Ohio. You can see Jeff’s most recent project, the Deep Energy Retrofit of his 1940’s Cape Cod style home at thegreenedhouseeffect.com.Website: www.jeffwilsonregularguy.com