Is Wind Power for You?
Under the right conditions, saving energy can be a breeze
This map shows average annual wind density and speed throughout the United States. Areas designated Class 3 or greater are best suited for wind turbines. Class 2 areas are marginal, while areas in white provide the least wind energy.
Joshua Janes was sick and tired of listening to people whine about their high electricity bills. And he'd had it with all his eco-obsessed friends, who went on and on about how frightened they were by global warming, then did absolutely nothing about it. The problem? "I realized I was one of those people too," he says.
So Joshua and his wife, Angie, decided to make a change. They started small, swapping out incandescent lightbulbs for compact fluorescents and replacing burned-out appliances with Energy Star models. But then they adopted a more radical approach to saving energy.
Ohio has long been a top producer of oil and natural gas. But there's another natural resource here many tend to overlook: wind—at least where the Janeses live, near Lake Erie. Taking advantage of their breezy locale, they erected a 45-foot-tall, 1.8-kilowatt wind turbine in their side yard. And just like that, they cut their consumption of nonrenewable energy, and their monthly utility bills, by almost half.
The turbine, which cost around $15,000 installed, provides up to 400 of the average 900 kilowatt-hours of electricity the family of five uses each month. "The great thing is that it only requires 8-mile-per-hour winds to start producing energy," says Joshua. "Here, we average about 10 to 12 miles per hour." The turbine is hooked into the local power grid for backup, but if it produces more energy than the family needs on any given day, the excess juice is fed back into the power supply. Joshua figures it will take him about 12 years to recoup his investment, at current rates.
Wind turbines are typically mounted on towers installed a safe distance from the house (local codes dictate how close they can be placed). To avoid wind turbulence, it's best to install them at least 20 feet above objects within a 250-foot radius.
Last year, some 7,000 Americans invested in small wind turbines. While sales have been growing about 15 to 20 percent a year, wind still accounts for a little more than 1 percent of the energy consumed in the United States, compared with 7 percent in Germany and 20 percent in Denmark.
In a typical residential setup, the turbine is mounted on top of a tall tower. (Most wind experts don't recommend installing them on rooftops, since this can make your house vibrate like a coin-operated motel bed and lead to structural problems.) A small inverter, often on the axle hub, converts direct current generated by wind into usable alternating current that travels to the home's electrical panel via an underground cable. Since even light winds generate power, you can use small turbines just about anywhere, but it doesn't hurt if you live in a part of the country known for strong gusts (see map). Most manufacturers recommend that you have at least an acre of land unobstructed by trees or structures, since they may weaken the turbine's performance.
Depending on your energy needs, a 2- to 10-kilowatt system can power an entire home. The Janeses' 1.8-kilowatt system cost about $5,400 for the turbine itself, $3,700 for the tower, and $3,000 for the foundation and installation. They spent an additional $3,000 on other items, such as a wireless remote that tells them how much energy the turbine is producing, an upgraded meter, and various zoning and electrical permits.
Of course, installing a wind turbine is a lot cheaper if you live in a state that offers tax incentives, discounts, or rebates (Find out if your state does here). "The biggest obstacle to getting wind power off the ground to residential customers is the absence of a stable support policy on the federal level—the kind Denmark, Germany, and Spain have," says Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.—based American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). The last time federal-level incentives were offered to homeowners was in 1985, though Real de Azua is hoping that will change soon. As of press time, the United States Congress was debating legislation that would provide a federal investment tax credit to purchasers of small wind systems with capacities of up to 100 kilowatts.
But you don't have to erect a giant tower in your backyard to tap into wind power. Some utility companies give you the option of using power pumped in from enormous wind farms. These farms, which may be owned by private companies or by the utilities themselves, are capable of generating thousands of megawatts of electricity. Utilities sometimes package wind energy with other renewable-energy options, such as solar or geothermal power. Other utilities that don't offer wind energy directly give customers the option of paying a small fee each month to support research and/or construction of wind farms and other renewable-energy projects.
Alternative energy options are especially common in the 26 states that, in an effort to combat global warming, now require utilities to produce a certain percentage of energy from renewable sources.
Before they installed their system, Joshua and Angie had heard that wind turbines were noisy, dangerous to birds, and ugly. The noise, they say, is no worse than the hum of a transformer. And while there are no studies on residential turbines and birds, according to the National Academy of Sciences less than three of every 100,000 bird deaths each year are caused by commercial turbines. As for aesthetics, Joshua says he'd rather look at his tower than at a nearby nuclear plant's cooling tower, also visible from his yard.
While the Janeses are still the only ones in town who have taken the leap, some of the couple's friends and neighbors are thinking about buying their own turbines. "They've come out to look at it and seem pretty interested," says Joshua. "I'd like to see everyone start putting these up."