Volume 14, Issue 11 ~ March 16 - March 22, 2006

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Got an Environmental Question? Send it to: EARTH TALK, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or submit your question at: www.emagazine.com. Or e-mail us at: [email protected].
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Can Home Windmills Work?

Price keeps wind turbines out of most private residences

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

—Erin McGowan, Seattle

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.

A Gloucester, Massachusetts, resident recently spent $30,000 to erect a 10,000-watt, 125-foot-tall wind turbine in her tiny backyard to generate her own pollution-free electricity. The turbine worked well initially, generating most of the power for her house. 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 has launched a program called Our Wind Cooperative to promote customer-owned wind power among farmers and other rural landowners in the Pacific Northwest.

Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development 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 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, Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development 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. As a pilot program to showcase wind’s potential, the project is considered 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. 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, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. 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.

For more information:

• Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development: www.nwseed.org.

• National Wind Technology Center: www.nrel.gov/wind.

Email your environmental questions to [email protected]

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