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Much of the attention that wind energy is receiving these days is focused on large-scale wind farms and their potential to supplement the fossil-fuel offerings of the power grid. Wind farms are intrusive additions to the landscape and are controversial for various reasons, but they are making an impact on the nation’s energy profile. Based on present growth rates, projections are that wind installations will provide up to 20 percent of all grid energy by the year 2030, assuming of course that there still is a grid operating at that time (a questionable assumption to say the least).
But fortunately wind energy has not been completely hijacked by the utility companies. Wind’s ubiquity makes it useful for mass-level harvesting schemes, but its universal nature also makes it an excellent alternative for those seeking a small-scale, high-quality energy alternative as well. A single residential wind turbine can generate enough usable electricity to power an entire homestead, and while it has fallen somewhat into solar energy’s shadow, wind power is still a very workable choice for off-the-gridders looking to achieve personal energy independence.
And yet wind is certainly not right for everyone and not a great option in every situation. Wind energy could be the ideal off-the-grid energy solution for you, or it could be the biggest mistake you’d ever make in your life, depending on a number of important factors. Therefore, before you start enthusiastically laying out your hard-earned Benjamins to purchase a wind energy system for your homestead, you will need to do some serious investigation work first.
So what exactly do you need to know about wind energy before you can make an intelligent decision about investing in it? What we are presenting here are the ten most frequently asked questions about wind power and home wind turbines, and if you can get the responses you need to these inquiries, then you may want to consider integrating wind energy into your off-the-grid lifestyle.
Question #1: What are the benefits of owning a home wind energy system?
Off-the-gridders are more aware than anyone of just how tenuous the conventional power grid really is. The only true form of energy security is energy independence, and a home wind turbine will allow you to harvest the hidden powers of nature efficiently and freely, eliminating your need to import electricity from far-off sources. Wind energy will make you immune to the energy price fluctuations that empty the pocketbooks of grid users on a semi-regular basis. And with wind power in the picture, you will no longer have to worry about blackouts that might last five minutes or five days, or possibly forever if indeed the grid does break down at some point in your lifetime.
Wind systems are particularly good for people who live in remote areas. If you are thinking of buying land well off the beaten path, it could cost you several thousand dollars to have power lines extended to your homestead, but with wind energy, there really is no such thing as a remote location. The wind is extremely democratic: it hits everywhere, and does not discriminate based on geography or proximity to paved roads.
Question #2: How can I determine if a wind energy system is a practical choice for me?
Here is a real stunner: if you want to use a wind turbine to generate electricity on your property, you will need to have enough wind available to actually make your turbine blades spin, both rapidly and often.
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? But it’s true: the average wind speed on your homestead, on the spot where you plan to locate your turbine, is the primary factor that will determine your compatibility with a wind energy system. Unless you have winds that average at least 9 miles per hour/per day (most installers will recommend even faster speeds), you can basically forget about wind energy, at least for the time being. Maybe changing weather patterns will speed up your wind in the future, but until that day comes, you will never be able to produce enough energy from wind to make a financial investment in the technology worthwhile.
Wind speed maps that span the entire United States and cover each individual area are widely available, in many cases online, from a number of sources, including the US Department of Energy, NASA, the National Climactic Data Center, state government energy offices, and wind energy installers in your area. Naturally, wind speeds on a particular piece of land will vary from local averages based on terrain and surrounding structures, so if you want to measure wind velocity on your land yourself, you can purchase a device called an anemometer. It could cost you a hundred dollars or more if purchased new, but it will give you the precise information you seek. Of course if you do decide to measure your own wind speed, you will want to do it at the altitude your prospective wind turbine will actually occupy and not at ground level.
Question #3: Can I afford wind power?
According to most educated sources, if your goal is to supply all the power needs of your home with wind energy you should expect to spend somewhere between $20,000 and $40,000 for your wind turbine plus the infrastructure needed to support it. Most experts estimate that you will have to invest somewhere between $4,000 and $8,000 for each kilowatt of energy you want to produce, and if you go with a 5-kilowatt turbine, you should be able to generate enough power to handle all of your needs even at times of peak demand. But naturally everyone lives differently, so if your power needs are less than average – and most off-the-gridders adventurers take pride in their ability to live more efficiently than the typical American family – then you can probably get by with less than the typical 5-kilowatt set-up.
Obviously a big part of what makes wind affordable is its ability to pay for itself over time by eliminating utility bills, and taking into account this source of savings, you can probably expect to get your initial investment back within a period of 10 to 20 years. But this assumes you are paying full retail for all the equipment and installation costs, which you may not have to do if you are smart enough to take advantage of tax credits, rebates, and incentive programs available from the federal and state governments (you can contact local government offices to find out more, and most wind system installers can provide guidance in this area as well).
Question #4: Assuming my wind speeds are adequate, how do I select a good site for my turbine?
Proper site selection for a wind turbine is everything. In order to keep it spinning at maximum efficiency, your wind turbine should be elevated so there is a vertical separation of at least 30 feet between the bottom of your turbine blades and any and all potential wind obstacles within 500 feet of your tower. Trees can grow, so if you have them on your land you should make your calculations based on their future height and not the present, and as a general rule you should try to install your turbine upwind from the buildings on your site (wind maps will show prevailing directionality in your area along with average speeds). All states have setback rules that will require you to install your turbines a certain distance away from roads and property lines, so if you are living in restricted space, wind energy may not be an option (turbines are seldom legal in urban or typical suburban settings).
In addition to good elevation, you will also need enough horizontal space to install all the guy wires and other elements of your support structure that will keep your turbine anchored firmly to the earth. If you were to draw an imaginary circle around the area where your wind turbine is to be installed, the radius of that circle should be at least three-fourths the projected height of your support tower. So the higher your turbine must be raised to soar above potential obstacles, the more open horizontal space you will need to have around the base of your tower.
Question #5: What kind of equipment will I need to get my turbine up and running and providing energy?
A wind energy system will consist of the following equipment: the wind turbine, the support tower, the guy wires used to anchor the tower, a battery bank, a battery charge controller, an inverter to convert DC energy to AC current for household usage, and wiring to connect your electrical generating system to the home. The great news is that once you get everything installed, your only concerns from then on should be related to basic maintenance, and as long as you take good care of your system, you can expect it to last indefinitely – and the first 5 or 6 years of its lifespan will be covered by a manufacturer’s warranty, so you shouldn’t have to worry about your tower falling over or breaking into pieces because of shoddy workmanship or poor installation procedures.
Question #6: How big and how high will a home turbine need to be?
As mentioned previously, a 5-kilowatt wind turbine can usually supply all a home’s energy needs, and a turbine of this size would have a diameter of about 18 feet. Of course, if you are looking for a turbine to supply only a portion of your power, it can be smaller; blades with a 12-foot diameter, for example, will generate about 2 kilowatts of electricity when in operation. The smaller a turbine is, the cheaper it will be, so you will be investing less upfront if you choose to go with a smaller system.
As long as your turbine is spinning consistently it will produce energy consistently, so the key is to make sure your blades are elevated high enough to reach that sweet spot where the wind blows strong and true. Generally speaking, the higher up you are, the stronger the winds, and that is why it is important not to skimp on tower height. Average elevation for a typical home wind turbine is about 80 feet above the ground, but regardless of your how high your tower ultimately rises, you should try to go more than the minimum recommended 30 feet above any nearby obstacles (as much as 50-60 feet would be ideal).
Question #7: Are hybrid systems (a wind turbine combined with solar panels, a backup diesel generator, a micro-hydropower arrangement, etc.) practical and intelligent choices?
In a word, yes! Hybrid arrangements that use a wind turbine to supplement the energy generating capacity of a photovoltaic set-up are particularly effective; while the sun bathes the earth in its energies most vigorously during the summer months, prevailing winds in most locations tend to be stronger during the wintertime. So these two types of renewable energy complement each quite other well, and a growing number of off-the-gridders are now installing wind-solar hybrid systems.
Question #8: Will energy storage be needed with a wind system?
Anyone who hopes to meet the clear majority of their energy needs with a wind turbine will need a battery bank to store all of the power generated when the wind is blowing and the turbine is rotating. If this is your plan, you will want to have enough storage capacity available to get you through 2 or 3 days of windless conditions. But smaller turbines used in combination with solar panels will not require battery storage, and those who are installing hybrid systems are usually satisfied with harvesting wind energy when it is directly available and are not worried about storing it for future use.
Question #9: Will my neighbors hate me if I install a wind turbine on my property?
If they do, their hatred will be driven by envy, not by their dissatisfaction with the noise a turbine makes or by their outrage over having their view of the surrounding countryside destroyed. These ideas are myths started by people who for one reason or another have a grudge against wind technology.
In reality, as long as they are properly maintained, modern home wind turbines actually make very little noise. Also, each state has regulations in place to ensure that wind turbines are installed so far away from property lines that their visual profile shouldn’t be noticeable enough to offend anyone living nearby. Now it might be a good idea to talk to your neighbors before purchasing and installing your turbine to let them know of your plans and to alleviate any concerns they might have. But just because large-scale wind farms are considered an eyesore by some does not mean that every single wind turbine will automatically be a blight on the rural landscape. In fact, many feel the sight of a lone wind turbine rising majestically above the surrounding landscape adds a touch of charm and authenticity to pastoral country scenes.
Question #10: Will I have to deal with a lot of regulatory red tape if I decide to install a wind turbine?
Unfortunately you will. There will be building and electrical permits that need to be issued, zoning requirements to be met that could restrict the size of your tower, setback rules (prescribed distances from property lines and roads) that must be obeyed, and certifications to be obtained. In some cases you may even be required to acquire written approval from neighbors before installing your turbine (not in most locations, but in some).
For further information about these regulatory hurdles you should speak with wind energy system installers in your area and/or a representative from your local government energy office. Each should be able to provide detailed information about the requirements and restrictions you will have to meet if you would like to add a wind turbine to your property.
Ready, Set, Go?
If after your initial investigation has been completed you decide that wind energy is right for you, you will want to contact wind turbine manufacturers/installers in your area to find out what they have to offer and what they recommend.
So is this type of alternative energy really for you? As Bob Dylan once put it so eloquently: the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.