Considering residential wind power for energy self-sufficiency? Find out whether a home wind turbine is right for you.
If you live in a residential neighborhood, be certain code restrictions do not prohibit turbines.
Photo By Rob Cardillo
So maybe you’re thinking you want to generate your own electricity, and home wind power has crossed your mind. After all, who really enjoys paying a utility bill? Small wind energy is renewable, non-polluting, and, in the right circumstances, can save you money.
But is home wind power a good choice for you? The answer may surprise you, because living in a windy area is not necessarily the most important factor. In fact, many properties are not a good fit for installing a wind turbine even if they have a lot of wind (for reasons we’ll get into). On the other hand, if you want to go off-grid and produce your own electricity, you almost certainly want to consider installing a home wind turbine, even if your location is not notably windy.
Here’s the deal: For a home wind turbine to be worth your investment, you really need to live on an acre or more. That’s the guideline from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Guide to Small Wind Electric Systems, a free publication for homeowners. Living in a rural area helps, because if you’re in a residential neighborhood, you’re likely to run into conflicts with zoning and local homeowners associations. Additionally, you’re more likely to find a high average wind speed in wide open spaces far from windbreaks such as buildings and trees. Altogether, while installing a small wind turbine in a city or suburb is certainly possible, you’re much more likely to have the right conditions for home wind power if you live well outside city limits.
That’s the case for Cam and Michelle Mather, who live on 150 forested acres in rural Ontario. The Mathers live in an off-grid home powered by solar panels and their micro wind turbine, a 1-kilowatt (kw) Bergey Excel 1. On such a large property, they’re nowhere near their closest neighbors, so there’s no one who might be upset about the noticeable — but not unpleasant — wind turbine noise or the very visible 100-foot tower in the couple’s yard.
What’s surprising about the Mathers’ situation is that their local wind speeds are not ideal, yet home wind power works beautifully for them. “Technically, if you look at wind maps, we’re in a bad location for wind, but we wanted to be off-grid for environmental reasons,” Cam says. The biggest issue with the Mathers’ property is that they have too many trees, and even though their small wind turbine is easily 40 feet above the tree line, the landscape slows down the wind. Wind still makes sense for them, though, because they’re off the grid, so their only electricity is what they produce and then store in batteries. They started with solar panels, but adding a wind turbine to the mix made the whole system much more stable and efficient — a major benefit when you’re solely responsible for generating your own electricity.
Renewable energy experts often recommend installing hybrid wind and solar energy systems for off-grid living. These systems work well because wind and solar energy tend to be most available at different times.
“Prior to our wind turbine, we got into the groove where the sun goes down and you live off the batteries,” Cam says. “You wake up in the morning, and you’ve drawn down the energy in your batteries. With wind, you wake up and you have more power.” As a result of installing a small wind turbine, the Mathers are less dependent on a fossil fuel-powered generator to produce electricity when their batteries run low, which, as Cam points out, not only reduces their carbon footprint, but also helps insulate them from future energy insecurity. “We look at it from the standpoint of resilience,” he says.
If your main goal is energy self-sufficiency, you may want to be off the grid. But if you’re simply interested in producing your own residential wind power, a grid-connected system can make a lot of sense. With this setup, anytime your wind turbine produces more power than your home needs, that power goes onto the local utility grid. When you need more power than you’re generating, you draw power from the grid. Grid-connected systems are often cheaper, because without the responsibility of producing all of your own electricity, you can install a smaller, less expensive system. You can also opt to skip the battery pack and backup generator. Finally, if you consistently generate more electricity than you need, you may actually get cash back from the utility.
That’s how it works for John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist on their rural property in Browntown, Wis. They’re in a great location for wind — since moving in, they’ve lost quite a few shingles off the roof, Ivanko says, and they can actually see a commercial wind farm from their property.
About 10 years ago, Ivanko and Kivirist installed their 10-kilowatt Bergey Excel turbine on a 120-foot tower (seea photo in the Image Gallery). They’re now generating about 10,000 kilowatt-hours (kwh) per year, an amount just slightly below the average annual household electricity use in the United States.
The couple invested in home energy efficiency before they started installing renewable energy, however, and with an efficient home, they now generate more electricity than they need. “It’s actually a cash flow for us here. We overproduce about 2,000 to 4,000 kilowatt-hours,” Ivanko says. That results in a payment of $200 to $400 from the utility each year.
Exactly how this relationship with the utility works depends on state regulations. Wisconsin, like most states (43 at last count), has net metering regulations that help make grid connection a good deal for homeowners. Essentially, when you use electricity from the utility, your meter runs forward, and when you put excess electricity onto the grid, it runs backward. “Raising kids in an environment with renewable energy systems is huge,” Kivirist says. “Our son is 11 now, and he doesn’t know any other way. He just assumes that everyone’s meter goes backwards.”
Putting in a wind turbine or any other renewable energy system is indeed an investment. The Mathers estimate the total cost of their 1-kw wind turbine was about $9,000, excluding batteries. They were able to save some money by installing the turbine themselves, and they do all of their own maintenance. And keep in mind that theirs is a small system. Even with a solid average wind speed of 9 mph, the estimated annual output is about 1,800 kwh. For a system large enough to provide all of your own energy — nearly 960 kwh per month for the average U.S. home — the costs can be significantly higher.
Ivanko and Kivirist estimate that the total installed cost of their 10-kw wind turbine was about $39,500, but their out-of-pocket costs were less than half of that, thanks to a state grant and other creative financing. For example, they reduced their labor costs by teaming up with wind energy educators to host a workshop on their property.
The Mathers chose off-grid living for environmental reasons, but the decision to go off-grid can sometimes make sense purely in financial terms. To begin with, if you live in a truly remote area and want to go off-grid, installing renewable energy systems will often be less expensive than paying the utility company to extend a power line to your property. In fact, some states require that the utility provide information on renewable energy alternatives whenever a customer requests a power line extension. The American Wind Energy Association gives a wide range of expected payback periods for a home wind turbine — between 6 and 30 years. Your savings will depend on a lot of individual factors.
One of the easiest factors to calculate is individual renewable energy incentives. In the United States, small wind turbines currently qualify for a federal tax credit of 30 percent, which is scheduled to continue through 2016.
Other financial incentives may be available through your state or through individual utilities. The best place for current information on U.S. renewable energy incentives, including net metering regulations, is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency. Canada also has home wind incentives; find more information from Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Wind Energy Association.
Another key factor in calculating how quickly your wind turbine will pay for itself is knowing how gusty your property actually is. The Department of Energy’s wind guide recommends 10 mph as a minimum average wind speed if you want to consider installing a grid-connected turbine. You can find out rough information about wind conditions where you live by checking wind resource maps, such as those available from Wind Powering America, or by asking a nearby airport for data on average wind speeds. In some wind-rich regions, you may also be able to find independent site assessors at a reasonable cost. The Midwest Renewable Energy Association, for example, maintains a list of site assessors. In other locations, you’ll need to read up on suggestions for DIY wind site assessments, or go with the recommendation of local wind turbine dealers. See “Home Wind Power Resources” later in this article for more helpful wind books and websites.
What else do you really need to know if you’re considering wind energy? Paul Gipe, author of Wind Power: Renewable Energy for Home, Farm and Business, has been researching and writing about wind turbines since the mid-1970s. While he’s a big supporter of renewable energy, he’s also an outspoken consumer advocate who has continued to prod the wind industry to make better small turbines, do more testing and publish more information about turbine performance. “I want people to use wind turbines, but I want people to use them safely, and I want them to produce significant amounts of electricity,” Gipe says.
Here’s his short list of things consumers need to know about small wind turbines.
Tower Height. First, yes, you really do need that tall tower, because average wind speeds increase substantially with height. “For a small, residential-sized turbine, it should be at least 80 to 100 feet tall,” Gipe says. You’ll see wind turbines mounted on shorter towers, and they may be producing some electricity — just likely not as much electricity as you’d want, and making the financial side of wind work out is difficult if you’re not producing enough power.
Roof Mounting. “Never put a wind turbine on the roof,” Gipe advises. This comes up all the time, because a big part of the expense of the turbine is the tower, and people are looking for ways to save a little money. This isn’t the way to do it, however. “If you want a wind turbine that’s going to be productive, the results time and time again prove mounting a wind turbine directly on the roof just doesn’t work,” he says. The turbine has to be significantly above the roofline to be able to generate much electricity, which you wouldn’t get unless you were mounting a tall tower on your roof — not the safest place to install a large machine. “It’s unsafe, unwise and uneconomic,” according to Gipe.
Certification. Avoid being seduced by a new wind turbine design that sounds wonderful but doesn’t have the test data to back it up. Look for established manufacturers with a proven track record and certified test results that show how much electricity you will be able to produce. “Don’t buy anything that’s untried, untested, or that has not been certified by the Small Wind Certification Council, period,” Gipe says. (As of this writing, three turbines are certified — Bergey Windpower Co.’s Excel 10, Evance Wind Turbines Ltd.’s R9000, and Southwest Windpower’s Skystream 3.7 — with several others pending approval.)
Safety. “Make sure that the turbine can be safely serviced and operated,” Gipe says. “Based on available technology, that means making sure that the tower can be safely lowered to the ground.” In other words, consider a tilt-down tower rather than one that requires you to work on the wind turbine 100 feet in the air.
Ivanko and Kivirist have a few additional words of wisdom: Get insurance. They didn’t have to do anything special to get liability insurance — it was just one more item listed on their homeowners insurance policy, Ivanko explains. However, they also insured their wind turbine against damages, and were grateful they had done so when the blades cracked during a severe storm last year. With climate change, extreme weather events are becoming more and more common, the couple warns, so good insurance is more necessary than ever. Ivanko and Kivirist were thrilled that Bergey chose to stand behind its blades and replace them free of charge, even though the blades were no longer under warranty. For this reason, the couple also encourages buying from established manufacturers to be sure turbines are certified and warranty policies are reliable.
And some final words from Cam and Michelle Mather: Don’t be intimidated — you can do it! When the Mathers went off the grid 15 years ago, they couldn’t find anyone in their area who knew about solar panels or wind turbines, so they had to learn everything themselves. The reason they ultimately decided to install the turbine themselves was because they couldn’t find a dealer close enough who would do it for a reasonable fee. But they made it work, and say they have found many benefits to this hands-on approach. “If I had to, I could bring the tower down in 20 minutes with a cordless drill,” Cam says. “I’m comfortable with it because I’ve done it.” Generating power from renewable energy and figuring out how to make their wind turbine work has been exciting for Cam. “I absolutely love it. In a big windstorm, I can stand there and look at it all day.”
So you’re ready for home-scale renewable energy, but have realized that putting a home wind turbine in your backyard doesn’t really make sense. What are your alternatives?
If you’ve already decided you want to generate your own electricity, take a look at solar power. Many sites that aren’t well-suited for wind turbines have great solar exposure, and the cost of solar electric panels is similar to what you would pay for a wind turbine.
On the other hand, maybe you don’t care about the hands-on side of renewable energy — you simply want to reduce your fossil fuel use and support the development of cleaner forms of energy. If that’s your situation, research your options for buying green power. In some cases, it’s as easy as selecting the wind power option from your utility. In other cases, it’s more like buying a carbon offset. Find out what’s available where you live using the Environmental Protection Agency's Green Power Resource.
If you’re simply excited about residential wind power and want to bring it closer to where you live, consider learning more about community wind power. While you may be most familiar with small wind for your home or industrial wind for utilities, a growing number of in-between, community-based projects are emerging. In particular, wind turbines often work well for schools, where, among their other benefits, they can be used as a teaching tool. Learn more about school wind power in Why Wind Power Works for Schools.
Homebrew Wind Power by Dan Bartman and Dan Fink
Power From the Wind: Achieving Energy Independence by Dan Chiras, Mick Sagrillo and Ian Woofenden
The Renewable Energy Handbook by William Kemp
Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist
Thriving During Challenging Times: The Energy, Food, and Financial Independence Handbook by Cam Mather; You can read more about Cam’s off-grid adventures in the blog, Homesteading and Livestock.
Wind Energy Basics by Paul Gipe
Wind Power: Renewable Energy for Home, Farm, and Business by Paul Gipe
Wind Power Basics by Dan Chiras
Home Scale Wind Turbine Installation (DVD) by Cam Mather
Small Wind Certification Council
independent certifying body for small wind and lists certified turbines, pending applications and detailed consumer information
Paul Gipe’s website; information on small wind, including specifics on different turbine models