Embracing Small Wind

Homeowners Are Investing in Backyard Turbines—and Reaping the Benefits

Small-wind industry expert Mick Sagrillo.
© Tammy Stoner

For David Stickle, it was easy. He paid $4,250 for a popular Skystream 3.7 wind turbine on eBay and affixed it to the top of an existing tower. As an industrial mechanic, he could manage all his own electrical and structural work. He also had steady wind and a cooperative local utility.Not long after the turbine started spinning, Stickle noticed that the electric meter at his home in rural northwest Illinois was spinning backward and his electric bill was dropping—by as much as $40 a month. While an economist would say that Stickle, 38, will get a pretty good return on his investment, he sees it differently.

"I have never tried to analyze it; I don't look at it as an investment. I look at it a something that just needs to happen," he says. "Mother Nature is giving it to us; it's up to us to use it."

Home Wind Is Happening

Stickle's not the only one who wants to capture wind power at home. In a recent market report, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) found that the number of small wind projects in the U.S. grew by 15% in 2009, a robust increase considering the nation's economic woes. That is part of a boom that has pushed the number of units up similarly each year since 2005, and boosted small wind power capacity past 100 megawatts (MW).

Ron Stimmel, AWEA's small-wind advocate, says that this year demand may be down because of the still-slumping economy, but that the future is bright for wind. "If you look at the nature of economic problems, it's a hard time to get people to free up money to buy big stuff. That sort of defines wind turbines," he says. "They are a sizable investment. But there is nothing to indicate that the interest is not there—and the manufacturers are saying that as the economy recovers there will be a surge in sales."

That said, 2010 sales are likely to be lower than those in 2009, which were buoyed by a 30% federal tax credit. But those sales directly impact the U.S. economy—nearly 70% of small wind turbines are made in the U.S.

For others who are dabbling in home wind energy (providing from 5 to 15 killowats) but can't do the work themselves, the costs are higher than Stickle"s—from $13,000 to $20,000 according to small-wind industry expert Mick Sagrillo, who has two wind towers at his rural Wisconsin home and frequently writes and presents on the topic. He said they can expect about a $50 savings on their utility bill, a value that will continue to rise as energy prices do.

The Hurdles

The biggest obstacle facing home wind is often local government permitting, which kills nearly two-thirds of such projects, according to one AWEA report. New efforts are underway in states and in Congress to standardize the process for metering or permitting and limit the fees that are charged. Thus far, only about 10 states have such controls.

"Where I live, there is a $250 fee—and that's it," says Sagrillo. In Wisconsin, when it comes to connecting to the utility's system, only units producing 25 kilowatts or less are eligible for net metering, while in nearby Iowa the cap is 1.3 MW.

In a 2009 report, the National Renew-able Energy Laboratory reported that of the 70 projects it studied all but a handful encountered "at least one type of significant interconnection barrier," and about 20% of the projects were abandoned or totally reconfigured.

Where the Wind Blows

But the news is not all bad. Like Stickle, Laurie and Mark Donnelly put in a wind turbine when they built their new home in 2008 not far from the California coastline north of Los Angeles. The $18,000 turbine was lowered to $4,000 with tax credits and rebates, and the two firefighters say the system saves them about $50 a month—and often produces more power than they use.

"It has run flawlessly," says Mark. "Hook-up and installation was a breeze. The only issue was the county permit process—and that was because we were the first residential wind turbine in this area. Now they have a better system."

Home wind systems, according to experts, can get a return on investment in five years under the best circumstances—with reasonable installation costs, a good permitting and interconnection climate and plenty of high-quality wind.

Location is key. Sagrillo doesn't recommend smaller rooftop systems in more urban environs. He says the drag and turbulent winds created from buildings and other structures make them very inefficient.

"There is a reason why the best wind energy systems are on tall towers in the open where the wind blows," Sagrillo says.

JIM PATERSON is a Maryland-based freelance writer.