With Long Paybacks, Vertical Turbines Still A Tough Sell

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling, always looking to bring you compelling cleantech news, is proud to repost this article courtesy of partner Midwest Energy News. Author credit goes to Tom Vandyck.

Even as they become more common, small-scale wind turbines remain a source of dispute in the renewable energy community.

Proponents say small wind turbines are ready to be an indispensable part of any home or small business’s energy mix, while critics say they’re inherently expensive and inefficient.

Planted firmly on the supporters’ side are Tony Magnotta and Jay Nygard, the founders of Minnesota Wind Technology in St. Paul. They met by chance two years ago at a trade show. Magnotta, the proprietor of the records and research firm Capitol Lien, had wanted to make his St. Paul building more energy efficient for years. Nygard was at the show to show off a small turbine.

Two years later, Magnotta and Nygard import vertical axis wind turbines (VAWTs) from the Taiwanese manufacturer Hi-Vawt. The turbine’s blades look somewhat like a giant, upside down version of a handheld kitchen mixer’s beaters. They can be seen spinning atop and next to Capitol Lien’s otherwise anonymous low-rise office building in St. Paul, which is also home to Minnesota Wind Technology.

image via Shutterstock

“If you could get everybody in the country to do what they could to their properties, adding renewable and doing energy conservation, we would not have to build any new power plants for a while”, said Nygard. “That’s what we’re trying to do with the VAWTs.”

‘Whirly-gig’

The Hi-Vawt turbine sold by Minnesota Wind Technology comes in three versions: a 3 kilowatt and 1.5 kilowatt models, and a smaller, 300 watt version designed to power street lights. The design is a hybrid of a stocky Savonius turbine along the axis, and a set of three thin, semicircular Darrieus blades.

“What’s unique about this design is that they took several basic designs and put them together in a very robust manner”, said Nygard.

But not everybody is as enthusiastic about small wind’s prospects. California-based industry expert Paul Gipe says  Minnesota Wind Technology’s turbines are ho-hum garden variety.

“There is nothing there”, he said. “The vertical axis wind turbine is a very crude design. There’s nothing indicating it’s a breakthrough.”

Technologically, small wind turbines are about two decades behind large ones, said Gipe. “They are about 4 to 8 times less cost effective than a commercial wind turbine. And I haven’t even got to reliability or safety.”

According to Gipe, small wind turbines are only practical for off-the-grid applications, such as farms and ranches, and for people who insist on generating green power, no matter the cost.

“If you want to use small wind turbines for some aesthetic purpose, as a sales gimmick, or as a whirly-gig to attract attention, that’s OK. But you don’t need a wind turbine to do that. You could buy a whirly-gig for five bucks,” he said.

Teaching tool

One such whirly-gig stands in front of the Clarendon Hills Middle School in Illinois, right next to the flag pole. The Hi-Vawt turbine was installed in September 2010, and principal Griffin Sonntag, who looks out at it from his office window, said he is very happy about it.

“It’s beautiful wind turbine. It was student-driven project. It’s an inspiration to the kids every single day they walk into the school.”

The middle school paid just under $40,000 for the 3 kilowatt unit, installation included, and expects to save between $500 and $1,000 per year. “It will take some time before the pay-off will make it cost-effective, but there’s so much more to the project”, said Sonntag, who calls the turbine primarily an educational project.

According to science teacher Nancy Grapenthien, who heads up the project, the turbine would perform better if it was placed higher. It sits on a 40-foot pole, and is partially obstructed by the 60-foot building. Grapenthien and her students had to obtain a zoning variance for the turbine.

“They didn’t want it over the top of the building”, she said. “If I could have gone up a little higher, I would be making more power.”

The turbine is attached to a computer display inside the school, where students can check its output every day. “Since we’ve had it in here, we’ve saved 2,152 pounds of CO2, because we didn’t have to use our coal energy,” said Grapenthien.

However, Grapenthien said the turbine can only produce a fraction of the 3,000 kWh of electricity the school uses each day. “I’m not touching my usage in any great degree, but it’s a great teaching tool.”

Midwest Energy News, launched in 2010, is a nonprofit news site dedicated to keeping stakeholders, policymakers, and citizens informed of the important changes taking place as the Midwest shifts from fossil fuels to a clean energy system.