Residential Wind Power: Catch the Wind at Home

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Photo By Jim Hackler
Curt and Christine Mann paid $15,000 for a 1.8 kilowatt Skystream wind turbine for their Atlanta home. They estimate the system will cut their utility bills by 15 to 20 percent.

Curt and Christine Mann of Atlanta wanted to do more than just conserve energy–they wanted to produce power as well. Shade from a beautiful old oak ruled out installing solar panels on their bungalow’s roof, so the couple decided to try residential wind power. Wind power is one of the world’s fastest growing forms of electricity generation, and residential-scale wind turbines like the Manns’ are seeing solid sales increases.

Typically, “small wind” turbines have three blades, about 15 feet in diameter, which are mounted on a 40- to 100-foot-tall tower and attached to a generator, which converts the wind power into electricity. This new generation of backyard wind turbines is quiet (less noisy than a refrigerator), durable (lasts 20 to 30 years with minimal maintenance) and is often designed to connect to a home’s electric power grid (some of them even transmit live data to your home computer).

Setting up a freestanding tower with a wind turbine is relatively quick and easy. Southern Energy Solutions in Marietta, Georgia, was able to get the Manns’ unit up in a day, president Roger Cone says. The couple chose the Skystream 3.7, created by Arizona-based Southwest Windpower in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). “Everything is built in,” Curt says. “All we had to do was create the foundation, hoist up the tower and run a few wires from the turbine into the meter.”

Smaller wind turbines can be placed on top of a house or garage, though many variables factor into their location. Homeowners should be careful with rooftop installation, regardless of the turbine’s make or model, says Ron Stimmel, small wind advocate for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). “Such an installation is possible, but it’s difficult and risky,” he says. Some buildings can’t structurally support a wind turbine, and turbulent air patterns could prevent the turbine from operating properly.

Checking velocity

The first step to getting your own turbine is finding out if your property gets enough wind. At a minimum, you want an average speed of more than 10 miles per hour. Check the Wind Energy Resource Atlas for detailed information on which areas of the country have enough wind.

A wind turbine manufacturer or a local installer can sometimes estimate the wind on your property using satellite data or by inspecting your property’s natural features, including windswept trees and shrubbery.

Most turbines also include a safety measure that automatically shuts the system off if wind speeds get too high, to prevent the engine from burning up.

Tower height is important because wind speed increases with altitude. Position turbine blades at least 10 feet higher than anything within 300 feet–trees, roofs, power lines–to cut down on turbulence that can reduce the turbine’s effectiveness. In urban areas, this can be a challenge because zoning regulations may limit a tower’s height, placement and other characteristics.

Research your area’s zoning restrictions by calling the local building inspector, board of supervisors or planning board. The Manns were pleasantly surprised that Atlanta’s planning and permitting departments were so supportive. “They allow renewable devices and they spell out the wind power guidelines,” Curt says.     

Sticker shock

Price is the biggest hurdle most people face when considering wind power. “It costs $3,000 to $5,000 per kilowatt of capacity to install a wind turbine,” Stimmel says. “Because the power of wind varies so much from place to place, it can cost from $12,000 to $55,000 to install a turbine large enough to power most or all of your home.”

There’s no federal tax credit for small wind systems, although the AWEA is pushing Congress to instate one. Local, state and utility incentives can make a turbine more cost effective. Many states offer net-metering, in which surplus electricity your turbine generates feeds back into the grid, giving you a credit on your utility bill. Check your state’s incentives.

Even without incentives, a home with higher-than-average winds and utility bills higher than $150 a month can recoup the price of a system in as little as six years, the AWEA says. That’s especially true for homes in rural and isolated areas where the cost of extending utility lines can be $20,000 to $30,000 per quarter mile.

When shopping for a wind company, ask your dealer and installer for references from satisfied customers. The United States is the world leader in small wind turbine production and is working with NREL to create a new certification process. 

Clearing the air

Another issue that can crop up with wind power at home is opposition by homeowner’s associations. While a few neighbors have signs protesting the Manns’ turbine, the couple says many others have left notes on their door thanking them for doing it. AWEA provides suggestions for a public relations campaign to persuade your neighbors and government officials before installing a wind turbine to ease the transition.

Curt and Christine admit their Atlanta yard may not be optimal for harnessing the wind because of its low elevation. However, they say they’re already experiencing a payback that’s more valuable than saving money. “Our 9-year-old son is studying conservation and the environment, so he photographed the installation as a civic lesson for his fourth-grade class,” Curt says.