I want to use wind turbines to power my home. Is it possible? - The Washington Post

I want my own wind turbine.

I know how much power hides in a light breeze. I’ve seen modest winds send a 350-ton ship across miles of ocean. Small turbines mounted on the boat’s rail, little more than glorified pinwheels, furnish electricity for days. Mini Wind Turbine Generator

I want to use wind turbines to power my home. Is it possible? - The Washington Post

So I was disappointed when almost everyone I asked from engineers to physicists dismissed the idea of small home wind turbines. Most described them as something between crank science and a waste of money.

Small wind power’s reputation as an expensive boondoggle, I later learned, is well deserved. Early turbine models were prone to breaking, generated little electricity and cost more than solar panels.

Then I noticed something odd. The Inflation Reduction Act gives homeowners a 30 percent tax credit for wind turbines.

Was this another government handout? A typo in the 750-page legislative package that passed Congress last year? Or, maybe, the U.S. government is ready to help me buy my very own home wind turbine.

I went to find out. Small turbines are coming to a rural area near you. One day, home wind could be nearly as familiar as solar panels, and even a city dweller like me could plug in.

Here’s the big idea behind small wind.

Small wind turbines have been powering America for generations. Early colonists used windmills to grind grain and cut wood. Cheap metal ones pumped water and, later, generated electricity on farms and ranches on the Great Plains during the 1800s.

But today’s tiny turbines, despite their superficial resemblance, are nothing like their predecessors. Composed of carbon fiber and packed with electronics, these models capture far more energy, at lower cost.

The Energy Department defines small wind as everything from 1-kilowatt units charging a battery to 100-kilowatt wind turbines capable of producing enough electricity to power about 40 U.S. homes. By contrast, just one of the world’s largest utility-scale turbines, a 15-megawatt behemoth in offshore wind farms, can power more than 6,500 U.S. homes.

So far, small turbines are a niche industry. Until the 1980s, the technology remained costly and unreliable. Then just as things were looking up, China flooded the market with cheap, state-subsidized solar panels in the 2000s, undercutting small turbines’ financial appeal.

Even after the Obama administration rained down billions of dollars on clean energy in 2009, small-scale wind power was overlooked in favor of solar panels and large-scale wind farms.

That’s the world we find ourselves in today. Wind turbines keep getting bigger. The average wind turbine’s hub height — the distance from the ground to where its blades attach — is about 300 feet, and its rotor diameter — the width of the circle the blades sweep — is about 418 feet, more than the length of a football field.

The reason is simple: The bigger the turbine, the more electricity it generates. Winds blow strongest high off the ground. Since power increases as a cube of wind velocity, if you double wind speed, you get eight times more energy. Secondly, longer blades extract more energy from the wind, even at low speeds.

All this is great news — for the wind industry. The United States generates about 10 percent of its electricity from wind, reports the Energy Department, and it should triple its capacity by mid-century.

Yet new technology and incentives like those in the Inflation Reduction Act may usher in an age of small wind.

To see what’s possible, I called Mike Bergey, co-founder of the Distributed Wind Energy Association and president of Bergey Windpower, one of the leading U.S. manufacturers of small turbines. The company has sold thousands of its 10-kilowatt turbines, some of which have operated maintenance-free for decades.

The company struggled for years, but the U.S. government threw it a lifeline in 2012. An Energy Department grant funded its next-generation turbine. The 15-kilowatt model, with just two moving parts, carbon fiber blades and a 31-foot rotor diameter, has slashed generation costs by more than 50 percent, said Bergey.

That has made his products far more competitive with solar for the first time in more than a decade. The first turbines shipped in 2019, with plans to quadruple production this year.

“That’s been the dream for 50 years,” says Bergey, who received a second grant from Energy in 2022. “We’re going from how to make payroll to how to double production.” He calls the climate and infrastructure law “totally transformational.”

“We’ve been in business for 45 years,” says Bergey, “and this is the best clean energy environment in America we’ve ever seen, by a long shot.”

Bergey’s typical customer is a farm or other rural business in the Midwest. He estimates his 15-kilowatt systems are a good fit for 8 million to 10 million rural households across the United States. Although the systems can cost $100,000, the economics work because these properties usually consume more power than the typical home, and they qualify for generous incentives of about 30 percent for homeowners and up to 90 percent for farms and other businesses.

What about for an urbanite like me?

I asked Bergey to estimate the wind power potential of my childhood home in Vero Beach, Fla., as well as my current address in San Francisco.

Neither, he concluded, will fulfill my home wind power dreams.

In Vero Beach, where the wind blows a measly 8.6 mph on average, I could generate an estimated 13,400-kilowatt hours annually — just over the amount consumed by the average American home. But the cost would be far above retail electricity rates. In San Francisco, where winds whip off the Pacific Ocean at 12 mph on average, I could triple my generation and sell the excess back to my utility company. Given California’s high electricity prices, I might make the economics work.

But I lacked one thing: land.

Although the noise from the wind turbine is comparable to a 50-decibel air conditioner, my neighbors might not take kindly to a 100-foot tower in my backyard. Bergey recommends his customers have two acres or more, along with high winds and electricity rates above 14 cents per kilowatt hour — the U.S. residential average was about 17 cents per kilowatt hour in June 2023, according to the U.S. government.

For this, I turned to Crystal Shank, the owner of Missouri Wind and Solar, about three hours from St. Louis. She sells smaller units starting at about $2,500 that can fit in my backyard or on my roof. Compared to Bergey Windpower’s products, these turbines were much easier to handle: About five feet in diameter, weighing 50 pounds, and mountable on a building or a small tower.

For years, her biggest customers were rural homesteaders or “preppers” — survivalists aiming to cut their reliance on utilities — but homeowners and farmers are now signing up. “One of the most rewarding things is to see someone’s installation and know that we helped them achieve their goals to be more independent,” she says.

But Shank said her wind systems work best as a complement, not a replacement, for solar power since winds tend to blow strongest at night. “We’re big proponents of hybrid systems,” she says.

Shank’s small wind system looked promising. As I perused her company’s website, I was struck by the range of options. Shank says her staff will walk people through installation, but I found the various controllers, busbars and blade specifications daunting. My other option — dismally reviewed Chinese turbines sold on Amazon — seemed like a bad idea.

If I lived on a Midwestern farm, I’d sign up for small wind in a heartbeat. (Here’s an Energy Department spreadsheet model to help you run the numbers).

But as someone well outside small wind’s sweet spot, I came away convinced only that the most determined or sophisticated buyers would overcome the technical and zoning hurdles to install their own turbines.

Compared to the multibillion-dollar solar industry — a mature, plug-and-play technology — distributed wind power remains the domain of small operators and DIY outfitters.

Perhaps not for long though, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Ian Baring-Gould, who helps lead the lab’s small wind efforts, says the technology has a crucial place alongside solar in the clean energy economy, especially in the nation’s vast interior.

Nearly 1,400 gigawatts, more than half of the nation’s current annual electricity consumption, could be built profitably today with small wind turbines, the lab estimates. The greatest residential potential is in New York, Minnesota, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

As prices fall, wind’s appeal will increase. For many living in rural areas, particularly in the northern reaches of the United States well above the Sun Belt, the economics of these systems would compare favorably to solar.

But to break out of its niche, the industry must mass-produce and package everything from turbines to financing into something affordable and easy. At the moment, Baring-Gould estimates small U.S. wind turbine manufacturers are only making about 5,000 turbines per year.

“We’ll have more places to put them than we’re going to have turbines for the foreseeable future,” says Baring-Gould. “Locations are not the limit. It’s our desire to do it, and people’s knowledge and understanding.”

There’s even hope for city dwellers. Community wind projects — in which cities or communities build their own small wind operations — allow anyone to benefit from cheap wind power in their vicinity. The electricity they generate, typically owned by community members, lowers everyone’s utility bills (Here’s the Energy Department guide to joining community wind). These kinds of projects promise to be the renewable energy frontier for many who once thought they were confined to solar.

I won’t be installing a home wind turbine anytime soon. I’ve set my sights bigger.

A consortium of California community energy groups wants to help finance an offshore wind farm near my home that will power cities like mine.

When it does, I’ll be sure to get a little piece of it.

I want to use wind turbines to power my home. Is it possible? - The Washington Post

Vertical Wind Power Turbine A previous version of this article indicated that the average cost of residential electricity was about 23 cents per kilowatt hour. It was about 17 cents per kilowatt hour as of June 2023. The article has been corrected.