I recently discussed the fact that renewable energy projects are becoming increasingly large and centralized, a trend that has led some to fear that the “residential revolution” of small-scale wind and solar in every home would never come to pass. But now, thanks to “reductions in their size and cost, along with improvements in efficiency,” sales of small wind turbines “have been growing steadily since 1990.” 7,000 small turbines (classified as producing no more than 100 kilowatts) were sold last year, a number that is expected to reach 10,000 this year. These turbines are typically rated at between 2 and 10 kilowatts, are from 33 to 100 feet in hight, and range in cost from $12,000 to $55,000. (For comparison, large wind turbines are rated at up to 3 megawatts, or 3,000 kilowatts, and stand up to 300 feet tall).
Several Factors Behind the Trend
Several factors are driving the increase in sales. Concern about climate change and energy costs are certainly important, especially considering that “a 10-kilowatt turbine in an area with an average wind speed of 12 miles per hour can lead to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to removing 1.3 cars from the road.” But perhaps the most compelling reason to “go wind” has to do with the economics. 23 states in the U.S. offer net metering, which means that if your wind turbine generates more power than you use, then your meter will actually spin backward as you sell that power back into the grid. Additionally, Congress is considering a measure that “would offer a 30 percent federal tax credit on turbine purchases” capped at $4,000. That same federal tax credit is already being offered to residential solar installations. Lastly, various state incentives can further sweeten the deal.
Barriers to Adopting Small Wind Turbines
Of course, there are two important barriers to those looking to purchase small wind turbines. The first is that in order to be economical, a wind turbine must be sited in a location with a minimum average speed of nine miles per hour. The second is that many local governments and neighborhoods have made the permitting process exceedingly difficult due to concerns about appearance,
noise, height limits, property values and bird deaths. We are very worried about this trend, seeing as our goal is to demonstrate that wind energy is an asset, not a liability. In many cases, the opposition to wind is a symptom of pure NIMBYism: claiming to support renewable energy, so long as it’s “somewhere else.”
Some of the concerns, such as those about noise and appearance, can be addressed with proper siting and the latest technology. Other concerns, especially those relating to property values and bird deaths, are absurd. Let’s not forget that we are in the century of climate change. At some point, early adopters of green technologies are going to have a competitive advantage over those that have not. And if we are truly concerned about the health of birds, then we would spend our time working to stabilize the concentration of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, to ensure that their habitats, migratory routes and sources of food are not harmed. Even the National Audubon Society agrees that “it is not clear what effect individual wind turbines have on birds,” and “suggests that homeowners learn whether they live close to a wildlife preserve that attracts a lot of birds.” In other words, they do not oppose wind energy.
The problem is that many homeowners have to put up a herculean fight just to get their project approved, and then they often face the ire of neighbors. It isn’t uncommon for lawsuits to result from this process. Perhaps the best way to circumvent the difficulties would be for a neighborhood to come together and install one large turbine that powers an entire block. That way, it could sited far enough away from the homes to allay concerns about noise and appearance, and everyone could share the cost, as well as the financial benefits, of purchasing the turbine.
Wind Could Power the Entire U.S.
Oh, and by the way, offshore wind could power the entire U.S., according a 2006 report entitled A Framework for Offshore Wind Energy Development in the United States. So once again, before we throw up our hands about climate change and energy security, let’s remember just how many options we have. Between large, ‘industrial’ renewable projects, and small, residential installations, there is room for mitigating climate change and democratizing energy production as the same time.