Week of 3/12/2006

Dear EarthTalk: Is it feasible to put up my own wind turbine to provide electricity to my home?

—Erin McGowan, Seattle, WA

Putting up your own wind turbine to provide electricity is technically feasible, but the costs for permitting, purchasing, installing and maintaining the technology remain prohibitive for all but the wealthiest, especially given the low costs of traditional power from the electricity grid across the United States.

Sadly, a Gloucester, Massachusetts resident recently spent $30,000 to erect a 10,000-watt, 125-foot-tall wind turbine in her tiny backyard in order to generate her own pollution-free electricity. The turbine worked well initially, generating most of the power for her house, but then it broke and the $10,000 part required to make it run again was too expensive, so the equipment has remained dormant ever since.

But the hard economic facts of backyard wind power are not enough to deter some idealists from working to build both supply and demand for what many view as the world's cleanest form of renewable energy. For one, the non-profit Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (NWSEED) has launched a program called "Our Wind Cooperative" to promote customer-owned wind power among farmers and other rural landowners in the Pacific Northwest.

NWSEED put together a package of federal and private funding options for those willing to put small turbines for personal and public use on their land. The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Systems Laboratory (NREL) gave the project a $300,000 grant, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture kicked in $50,000. Also, the non-profit Bonneville Environmental Foundation extended a low-interest loan, and pledged to buy and help generate further demand for some of the power generated.

By the end of 2003, NWSEED had enough money to install small turbines on 10 rural sites in Montana and Washington. So far, five are running and a sixth is due to go online soon. Though each turbine costs $40,000, grants have kept participant costs to under $10,000. Without the subsidy, the program would not be cost-effective in the short run but, like all new technologies, costs will come down as demand grows. And as a pilot program to showcase wind's potential, the project is considered to be a rousing success.

Elsewhere, in Silicon Valley, a slew of alternative energy firms, including many focusing on small-scale wind power, are being born. Among them are AeroVironment and Aerotecture, both specializing in backyard windmills that power lights, appliances, and heating and cooling systems without polluting.

More new wind power facilities were installed in the U.S. last year than anywhere else in the world. According to the Global Wind Energy Council, the U.S. installed 2,400 megawatts—equivalent to the energy produced by five large coal-fired power plants in a year—in 2005 alone. These were mainly large wind farms, but the industry's growth is nevertheless encouraging to those of us who dream about putting that howling wind outside our windows to good use.

CONTACTS: NWSEED, www.nwseed.org; National Wind Technology Center, www.nrel.gov/wind.


Dear EarthTalk: What are some green-friendly hardwood floor waxes I can use in my home that aren't as toxic as conventional brands?

—Pat Montgomery, Phoenix, AZ

Most of us spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, so minimizing the use of harmful chemicals in our homes, offices and schools is important to keep the air we breathe healthy and the constructed surfaces we live on free of irritants and toxins.

But there are trade-offs, as proper maintenance of most types of flooring requires that occasional waxing to protect the finish beneath our feet. Among the worst offenders commonly found in mainstream floor waxes is cresol, which can cause liver and kidney damage if inhaled over extended periods of time. Formaldehyde, which has been linked to everything from asthma to reproductive problems to cancer, is also a key floor wax ingredient that should be avoided whenever possible. Some other hazardous ingredients in traditional floor waxes are nitrobenzene, perchloroethylene, phenol, toluene and xylene.

Luckily for the eco-conscious homemaker, a number of forward-thinking companies have risen to the green challenge by manufacturing floor waxes that help maintain a more healthy and pure indoor environment. Seattle's Environmental Home Center, one of the country's foremost green building product retailers, recommends and sells BioShield's all-natural Furniture and Floor Hardwax for wood floors. The beeswax, carnauba wax and natural resin paste that make up the basis of BioShield's formula produce a dirt- and dust-resistant final coat to protect floors without compromising your health or indoor air quality.

Eco-House Inc., based in New Brunswick, Canada, manufactures a similar formulation for wood floors called #300 Carnauba Floor Wax. It contains beeswax, carnauba wax, refined linseed oil, rosemary oil, a mild citrus-based thinner, and natural resins. It can be ordered directly from the company or through various green-building retailers across North America.

Meanwhile, Sensitive Design, a green architectural firm based in British Columbia, Canada, recommends that its clients maintain their wood, cork or open-pored stone floors with BILO floor wax. Made by the German company, Livos, which manufactures home care products that contain only biologically and environmentally responsible ingredients grown without pesticides, BILO is available online from the Green Home Environmental Store.

For the do-it-yourself crowd, the free online Guide to Less Toxic Products (from the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia) recommends concocting your own all-natural wood floor wax by warming up a combination of olive oil, vodka, beeswax and carnauba wax in a tin can or glass jar in simmering water. Once the concoction has been mixed and allowed to harden, it can be rubbed directly into wood floors with rags. For more detailed instructions, visit the association's website (listed below).

CONTACTS: Environmental Home Center, www.environmentalhomecenter.com; BioShield, www.bioshieldpaint.com; Sensitive Design, www.sensitivedesign.com; Green Home Environmental Store, www.greenhome.com; Guide to Less Toxic Products, www.lesstoxicguide.ca.