How a Small Wind Turbine Works, Part 1

Reader Contribution by Chip Means and Pika Energy
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While still hugely dependent upon fossil fuels, the home energy industry has evolved meaningfully in recent decades. Renewables are no longer cost-prohibitive or “special interest” options for homeowners; they’re commonsense solutions that provide a range of benefits to homes, businesses and the planet. 

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reports the U.S. solar industry is on pace to complete its one millionth solar installation in 2015. As growth continues, homeowners now see solar as a realistic, investment-friendly option. State- and federal-level incentives have further contributed to what we now recognize as a solar boom.

Similarly, the small-scale (or, “distributed”) wind industry is evolving from a quiet companion of the solar movement to a front-and-center home renewable option—and the momentum for small wind is growing. As GreenTech Media reported in 2014, the distributed wind industry is looking to replicate the solar adoption boom. Federal incentives are now in the corner of distributed wind, in addition to solar. 

As more U.S. homes consider the benefits of small wind turbines (which I’ll cover in a later post), it is imperative that we fully understand the technology that could soon be as common a home fixture as solar arrays.

Wind Turbine Basics 

A wind turbine generates electricity by using the flow of air’s power to rotate an alternator inside the nacelle (body) of a turbine. This produces an electrical charge, which is then boosted and transmitted over wires, which deliver the electricity to wherever it needs to go.

In a big, coal-powered electricity plant, an electromagnet’s turbine is spun via steam power. This steam is produced by heating huge amounts of water. That’s where coal comes in; it’s burned to heat the water, to create enough steam to power the turbines in the plant. It’s a process that is as roundabout and inefficient as it is dirty. Worse, it’s by far the prevailing way electricity is generated in the U.S.: 90 percent of all the coal mined in the U.S. is used to generate electricity (Source: Hyman, Hyman and Hyman, America’s Electric Utilities. 2005.). 

Feeling greener by the minute?

Back to the wind turbine: When the wind spins the blades of the turbine, the alternator generates electricity. This is carried to an inverter, like the one your solar panels use. The inverter gives your home’s lights, appliances and outlets the power they need to run. It can also sell power back to the grid, inverting your meter, if you make more power than you need. 

As you can guess, a key feature of a small wind turbine is how simple, clean and direct that process is, versus buying power from utilities that burn coal (or use nuclear power) to generate your electricity.

Now that we’ve covered the electricity basics, we’ll use the next installment to dive into the true benefits of a small wind turbine for a home, and why homeowners who already have solar panels should be even more interested in adding wind power to complement their PV and round out their home electricity systems.

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