BRYAN WALSH, Time, November 20, 2008
Doug Morrell had already installed solar panels on his house in Coopersville, Michigan, but he was eager to get a little bit greener. So the 52-year-old Navy veteran bought something that might seem more at home in the Dutch countryside than in a small town in western Michigan: a personal wind turbine.
The 33-ft.-high (10 m) machine, whose blades span 7 ft. (2 m) in diameter, sits next to the pole barn 100 yd. (90 m) from Morrell’s home. (Turbines like Morrell’s convert the energy of the wind to electricity, while old windmills are geared for mechanical power, like pulling water from a well.)
On days with decent wind — which occur frequently enough, since he can feel the breeze from Lake Michigan — the $16,000 Swift wind turbine can generate 1.5 kilowatts (kW) an hour, i.e., enough to power the average lightbulb for 15 hours. Together with his solar array, that’s enough to take care of much of his electricity bill. “It’s clean energy we don’t have to dig for. It just comes right to us,” says Morrell. And best of all, he says, “it’s fun watching our meter run backward instead of forward.”
Thanks in part to a new tax credit put into place by Congress in October, owning your own wind turbine could be the next green trend. While it’s true that wind power has taken off in the U.S. — adding more in new capacity to the electrical grid last year than any other power source — most of that increase comes from utility wind farms, vast fields of turbines more than 300 ft. (90 m) tall.
For homeowners seeking renewable-energy sources, however, better-known solar power has always dominated. Home solar power currently generates 12 times as much energy as small wind power, which is defined as turbines that have a capacity of 100 kW or less (though most household turbines will produce 10 kW at most).
That’s partly because residential wind turbines require space and sky — at least half an acre of open land — to get access to consistent winds. Still, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), some 15 million homes in the U.S. fit that definition — and small turbines, unlike large wind farms, can be productive in weaker breezes, which puts more of the country into play, though the best areas are still windy spots like the Midwest or West Texas.
What’s really held back residential wind power has been the lack of federal subsidies, which have fed the growth of other renewables like solar and large-scale wind. “We’ve had zero federal assistance,” says Ron Stimmel, AWEA’s small wind expert.
But when Congress passed the bailout bill this fall, it added a 30% tax credit for small-wind projects, which Stimmel believes will enable the industry to grow 40% next year, even in a down market.
In other words, small wind may not be small potatoes for much longer. And that could be a boost for domestic green businesses as well: U.S. firms control 98% of the small-wind market, in contrast to large-scale wind and solar, in which foreign manufacturers dominate. “Since the tax credit, our phone has been ringing off the hook,” says Andy Kruse, a co-founder of Southwest Windpower, a major small-scale-turbine producer in Flagstaff, Ariz. “It’s really exciting to see the market coming to us.”
More than 20 states offer separate subsidies, including ever green California and Vermont. “The federal and state subsidies can make it feasible to get a quicker payback,” says Mike Bergey, president of Bergey Windpower, a small wind producer in Norman, Oklahoma.
Even so, buying your own windmill isn’t cheap. A turbine that could produce most of your family’s electricity might cost as much as $80,000 and take as long as two decades to pay back, depending on wind strength and state subsidies. (The 30% federal tax credit is currently capped at $4,000.)
Then there’s the height factor. Residential wind turbines are tall enough to potentially irritate neighbors and require reams of paperwork, especially for the 60 million Americans who belong to a community association. And even though many of the assumptions about small wind turbines aren’t true — they don’t make much noise, and the AWEA notes that sliding glass doors are a bigger risk to birds than residential wind turbines are — not everyone wants to fight the bureaucratic battles. “It can take a lot of court cases for a turbine owner just to be sure he can put one in,” says Stimmel.
But watt for watt, small wind is cheaper than residential solar, and for those willing to make the up-front investment, it can provide freedom from the electrical grid. Plus, in the eyes of some, there’s nothing more beautiful than a wind turbine spinning in the backyard. “It looks like a giant pinwheel and sounds like a plane off in the distance,” says Morrell. “I’d definitely recommend it.”