Whether writing the electric company a check for $100 or $30,000, every utility connected consumer, at some point asks him or herself, "Is this really necessary?"
Though the cost of electrical usage will certainly go up, there may be ways to soften the blow and gain independence. Small wind power is becoming an increasingly popular way to generate clean, cost effective energy, without the infrastructure and cost of large wind farms.
At the 2011 National Farm Machinery show in Louisville, Kentucky, Mitzi Cranmore spoke with hundreds of homeowners, farmers, and ranchers who have an interest in learning more about small wind energy production. Cranmore is a Project Assessment Specialist at Harvest Energy Solutions, a full-service wind turbine dealer and installer.
The budding world of wind has, in its infancy, left many open questions regarding alternative energy options, but three common questions surfaced: Do I have enough wind? What does it cost? And most frequently, Will the utility pay me for my surplus?
There are no short answers, according to Cranmore. Similar to purchasing any new piece of equipment there are a variety of variables to consider when determining return on investment, and wind is no exception, she says.
Do I have enough wind?
This question is crucial. Without a sufficient wind resource you could spend quite a large sum of money on what may be a beautiful lawn ornament. There are many wind-prospecting resources available that range from free, to several thousands of dollars, Cranmore says. They can provide immediate results or collect data over a year's time or more.
Wind maps are great for generalizing which areas may have a greater potential for wind, but should only be used in addition to another resource, she adds. Check out windpoweringamerica.gov for good high-resolution wind maps.
For large-scale projects it is necessary to install a met tower, which will generally have an anemometer, wind direction vanes, temperature and pressure sensors, and other measurement devices. For home or farm-sized projects there are other options that will provide sufficient and prompt results.
Most reputable turbine dealers will offer access to a wind speed report and some siting analysis, but there will probably be a charge. If you'd like to do the research yourself, 3Tier.com offers a wind-prospecting tool that will provide the average annual and monthly mean wind speed based on your physical address, as well as a "wind rose" that will indicate the prominent direction of the wind, for proper turbine placement.
What does it cost?
Most turbine dealers will itemize the cost of your wind project. Because there are many factors to consider, such as installation, tower options, additional cabling, off-grid options, etc., it's necessary to have a sit down with your installer/dealer to determine the total price.
A small turbine (1-10kW) can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $100,000 installed, Cranmore advises. Depending on your utility, state, and tax status, you may qualify for financial incentives that could bring your final out-of-pocket price down considerably.
Many customers ask, "How many years will it take to get my money back?" That calculation is easy to come by but may be very misleading. Cranmore says, the more important question to ask is, "Over the life time of the turbine how much money will I save after the turbine is paid off?" The information you'll need to find that number is, your expected annual energy output (AEO) based on your prospective turbines output in your wind regime, and the price you pay for electricity/kWh (total bill / kWh used). Most quality turbines have an expected life of at least 25-30 years.
For example, if a turbine will produce 20,000 kWh in a year and you pay .10 cents for electricity, over the life of the turbine you will save at least $60,000 in electricity costs, says Cranmore. This number is assuming the cost of electricity will remain the same (not likely). If the price of electricity doubles so does your savings. With good incentives your payback will be less than 10 years, bringing 20+ years of free electricity.
Will the utility pay me for surplus power?
Many European countries have adopted feed-in tariffs (FIT's). This is a renewable energy policy that ensures eligible renewable electricity generators (the turbine owners) are paid for total energy generation (a set rate), regardless of retail or avoided cost rates. These policies have stimulated rapid renewable energy growth by incentivizing the consumer.
Some U.S. states have gone to great lengths to employ this policy and increase their renewable energy production. To date, 21 states have at least one utility offering a production-based incentive (including FIT's), that will provide cash payments based on the number of kilowatt-hours or BTU's generated, Cranmore says.
For now, the rest of us are left with net metering: a policy that allows for the flow of electricity both to and from the customer and the local power company, Cranmore says. Through standard net metering, additional kilowatt-hours (kWh) generated by your turbine are applied as a retail credit to your account. Surplus kWh during a billing cycle may be carried over to the next period, but not always, she adds. Sometimes surplus credits will carry over indefinitely, but checks are almost never cut to you, the turbine owner.
On occasion a utility, through standard net metering, will issue a check at the end of the month for surplus, but it is typically a minimal amount, Cranmore says. The surplus in this case will most likely be paid at a wholesale price. Also, keep in mind a turbine large enough to generate a surplus generally won't be granted interconnection approval.
– Vincent is editor of Michigan Farmer, a sister publication to Farm Futures.