Making Small Wind Work Takes Big Planning

It’s a lovely thought, small wind turbines providing clean supplemental power at your home or in your community. But you don’t have to go far to find tales of small-wind woe, with newfangled vertical-axis turbines and even standard turbines seemingly often falling short of promises and expectations.

Some suggest that experiences like these mean that small wind – defined frequently as turbines at or under 100-kilowatts in generating power – is fundamentally flawed. But a new U.S. Department of Energy compilation of lessons learned over the past decade suggests that siting and setup of the turbines can be a key issue.

small wind

Bergey wind turbine in California. (image via Bergey Windpower)

These dos and don’ts, posted on the Wind Powering America site recently, were collected by author Frank Oteri, according to the website, and they reflect and expand on some of the insights we’ve reported on based on our interviews with Mike Bergey, president of Bergey Windpower. Not surprising, perhaps, given that a couple of the items on the list are from a Bergey rep. Here’s the full rundown from the DOE:

  • Although wind resource maps have improved, site visits are still necessary. The resolution and accuracy of today’s wind maps provide an initial estimate for the wind resource of a selected site, but they are not enough to ensure a project’s success. According to Pieter Huebner, service manager at Bergey Windpower, inexperienced developers often rely too much on wind maps. When a wind map shows a good resource, they assume that “everywhere is that shade of color.” Huebner said that although he thinks the models get better every year, one should not assume that every site will have the resource depicted on the map. Site visits are still recommended.
  • Relying on Google Earth to discover surrounding structures or obstacles can be a mistake. Technology has become more accessible and hands-on in recent years, but according to Lisa DiFrancisco of North Coast Energy Systems, visiting the site is critical to ensure a successful project. “Walking on the site, you find that what you see when you get there is often not what you saw on the overhead because it’s not quite up to date,” DiFrancisco said. “Someone might have built a new building, grown some trees, or even cut some trees down. Maybe the hills are steeper than you imagined, or the site is closer to a set of train tracks than you thought, or there could be a utility right-of-way that wasn’t on the map. In my view, the physical site assessment is the single most important thing you can do prior to an installation.”
  • Turbulence can shorten a turbine’s life. Wind turbulence is the rapid disturbances or irregularities in the wind speed, direction, and vertical component. It is an important site characteristic because high turbulence levels may decrease power output and cause extreme loading on wind turbine components, resulting in a shorter life, or increase the long-term maintenance costs for a project. “I’ve seen energetic sites where installers have chosen shorter towers than they should have, and the turbine sees a lot more mechanical use and turbulence,” Huebner said. “Even though the production seems to be as promised or better, the reliability of the turbine and the amount of maintenance required is more than expected because of the turbulent location.”
  • Wind resource measurement is an investment and should be considered under the correct circumstances. When trying to decide whether to install an anemometer and conduct a year-long wind measurement study for your site prior to installing your small wind energy system, you must consider multiple factors. “It comes down to uncertainty and risk,” said Charles Newcomb, director of technical strategy for Endurance Wind Power. “Where my margins are really thin, I should be more careful.” Although Newcomb believes that turbine sizes do not dictate when wind resource measurements should be conducted, Huebner feels that the larger small wind turbines may require further due diligence. “When you start looking at the 50-kilowatt turbines and above and there’s doubt about the wind resource, because of the size of the investment it’s probably justifiable to do an actual wind study at the site,” Huebner said. He added that the investment is hard to justify for the smaller wind turbines.
  • Obstacles in the primary wind energy direction have an increased impact on the production of a project by altering the resource or increasing turbulence. There are multiple ways to help avoid this potential conflict, including siting the turbine in a more open area or increasing the tower height. Experts recommend that turbines be sited upwind of buildings and trees and installed 25 to 35 feet above anything within a 300-foot horizontal radius.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Jerry Graf

    In 2008 the Cadmus Group did a study of small scale wind turbines for the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust (MRET).

    Two of the key findings in this report are:
    • Based on data reported to MRET in grant applications and on monthly readings of revenue‐quality energy meters connected to each system, no installer or turbine model is meeting its energy‐production target.
    • The 21 small wind energy systems examined in this report are producing approximately 29 percent of the energy that installers predicted they would in grant applications filed with MRET.

    Quite a few of the turbines studied were Bergey units, like those that are currently disappointing Lordstown, OH.

    I have reviewed quite a few wind turbine (and solar panel) projects. From what I see, the issue is that real analysis of output, real analysis of ROI, and real analysis of effectiveness is NOT frequently considered because government funding is absorbing the losses and the taxpayers are taking the risk.

  • Michael Bergey

    The referenced Cadmus Group study revealed that the wind maps for Massachusetts were optimistic and that most of the towers were too short for the site conditions. Since then the maps have improved, taller towers are more common, and most of the best selling small wind turbines, including the Bergey 10 kW, have third-party certifications of their performance curves. Therefore, performance projections have greatly improved. Two papers from the 2012 Small Wind Conference provide more up to date independent reviews: Note Case Study #1 on a Bergey 10 kW Note on Slide 9 that three of the Bergey 10 kW sites biased the study results upward because the produced 129%, 153%, and 156%, respectively, of their predicted annual production.
    For the record the peak 24-hour energy production from a Bergey 10 kW is 337 kWh for a site near Devon in the UK. This 14.04 kW average is a capacity factor of 140%.
    Lordstown, OH has a lower average wind speed than the installing dealer predicted.
    Your methods of analyzing renewable energy economics are biased. You’d need to compare them to the cost of we’d be paying for electricity if the fossil fuel industries were stripped of their many long-standing subsidies and pollution waivers. In that case renewables would fare much better.

  • Pete Danko

    Thank you Jerry and Mike for the interesting links. I do think it’s indisputable that there are small wind leaders who are working hard to make the technology more efficient and predictable. I see the Small Wind Certification program is growing; that’s good news.

  • Alec Sevins

    Conversely, it takes small minds to pretend that BIG wind turbines aren’t destroying the character of the landscape and the soundscape. Making small wind work seems like the best plan.