Catching the Wind: Home Wind Power

So you think wind power is noisy, unreliable, and inefficient? Well, the newest home wind power systems have finally come of age.

| October/November 1994

Mark Mein and Ellen Davis have been living with solar-generated electricity for 10 years. They have no utility power at their house. Instead, they have 15 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels that provide electricity for them and their seven-year-old son. However, the PVs alone did not provide enough electricity during the dark midwinter period and they found themselves grudgingly relying on their gasoline generator from November through January. In October of 1992 they decided to move away from this dependence on fossil fuels and set up a home wind power system, taking advantage of the other renewable energy source they had overhead.

As Mark said, "I wanted to vote with my dollars for the kind of energy picture I want to see in the U.S. and the world." So Mark and Ellen bought a 1-kW wind turbine to help out their solar system on cloudy days. While before they might have used about 50 gallons of gasoline a year to provide backup power, with their wind generator they use only 20.

Their wind/PV system provides enough electricity to run their "typical, low-energy" house. This includes lights, TV, VCR, stereo, washing machine, refrigerator, freezer, convection oven, water pump, hand-held power tools, and a variety of other small appliances. Mark thinks that if they did not have a renewable energy system at their house, they would be burning $500–600 worth of gas each year.

Like Mark and Ellen, thousands of people across the country are using wind power to generate electricity. Some of them do it to save on utility bills, others to decrease dependence on fossil fuels, and still others because they have no other energy option. Together they have forged a radical change in how wind power is perceived.

Planes and Radios

Wind power has been an important source of energy in the United States for centuries. Over eight million mechanical windmills have been installed in America since the 1860s, and thousands are still in operation across the West. Their main function was to pump water, not to provide the kind of fossil fuel-replacing help that we need the most.

It wasn't until the 1920s that wind-generated electricity took off — literally. Mick Sagrillo, president of Lake Michigan Wind & Sun, explains that it all began with the airplane. The propeller was discovered to be not only an efficient way of producing thrust, but it also drove an electrical generator far better than a mechanical water wheel, which is very similar to what the earliest wind generators used. As the propeller developed, so did generating stations on the ground.

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