Wind Suits Us
Our Family Adventure with Wind Power
Update: July 2013
Four years have passed since we put our wind turbine online. The most frequent question we’re asked is, "How’s the windmill?" I hope to answer some of those questions with this update.
Everything is Fine
The follow-up question to "How’s the windmill" is "Have you had any problems?" The short answer is no. We have not had a single problem with the turbine itself or the tower it's mounted on. It has survived high winds (including a tornado!), ice, rain, sleet, snow, hail, heat, cold and everything in between. We haven't had to bring the turbine down for any reason. In short, it just works.
Performance is Fine
The whole point of putting up a wind turbine is to generate electricity. When we put it up, we didn't have a clear-cut expectation of how much electricity it would generate, in large part because it's really impossible to predict exactly. You can choose a location that will improve the probability of good performance, but there really isn’t any way of saying "you should expect this unit will generate so many kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity." The manufacture's literature says that a "typical" installation will generate 2,500 to 5,000 kWh or 30 to 70% of electricity usage per year. Unfortunately, ough doesn't say what kind of wind profile that is based on. We're averaging over 3100 kWh or 33% of our electricity per year (and up to 98% for a month) in what is listed as a "Fair to Good" wind area. We probably could have gotten more if we had installed a higher tower, but that led to other compromises (like tower location, trees that had to be cut down, not to mention cost) that we were not willing to make. So all in all, performance is fine.
Payback is Fine, But That's Really Not The Point
If you are thinking about installing a home wind turbine with the idea of making (or even saving) money, we recommend you think long and hard. The actual payback depends on a number of factors: The wind, the size and type of the unit, the cost of the unit, the cost of electricity, the price you get from the power company for the surplus electricity you generate, etc. One way to calculate payback is to divide the cost of the unit by the price of electricity. This is a good estimate, but the cost of electricity is unlikely to stay constant over the life of the unit. But even if you project the cost with inflation, chances of the unit paying for itself much before the end of its life are not great. As the installer said, it's like buying 25 years of electricity all at once. But the bigger issue is that by installing a home wind turbine, you are reducing greenhouse gasses and helping slow global warming. If that isn't reason enough, I'm not sure what is.
But All is Not Wine and Roses
Earlier this spring we had a situation where the unit was shutting down in "self-preservation mode" and throwing errors several times per hour. To find out what the problem might be and if there was anything I could do, I emailed the company that installed the unit. The email came back undeliverable. That of course was cause for concern. So then I went to Southwest Windpower’s (SWWP) website to find another dealer. Their dealer locator was offline. That was further cause for concern. I did more research and found that in fact Midstate Renewable was out of business and SWWP had abruptly closed its doors in February 2012. At this point, we don’t know who will service the unit (if anybody) or if there are parts available. In the SWWP forums, most of the discussion has been about why the company closed (the small wind power market crashed) and very little about what to do in the future. As it turns out, the turbine was just fine. What had happened was some storms had disrupted the power grid, and whatever work they were doing knocked the frequency off spec. Once the power grid returned back to normal, the turbine stopped throwing errors.
If We Had It To Do Over Again
I think often what we might have done differently if we had the chance to do it over again. At this point the only thing I regret is not having a clear understanding of what exactly needed to be removed to make room for the system. Tears were shed (and not just by the kids) as I dismantled the kid's swing set. But also the grape vine and some additional trees had to be removed. Plus I didn't realize the gin pole (the lever used to raise and lower the tower) was going to be permanent. We would have liked to have a taller tower (and in fact we have a zoning variance that allows us to do so) but the idea of cutting down more trees to be "green" struck us as paradoxical. Also, the power company insisted we install a disconnect switch and meter at the base of the tower. Frankly, it's in the way. We'd be happier if that weren’t there either. Also, in retrospect, I should have had the installer educate me about the installation and how to maintain it. We didn't approach the project with the idea that his company would be out of business three years hence. But now that he is, it would have been good know that I would be able to handle at least of the problems myself.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that overall, based on the first four years our adventure into alternative energy has been satisfyingly successful. The future for small wind power is uncertain, especially in the U.S., but the future for our small installation appears to be quite solid indeed.