Small Wind Makes Big Gains In US

Distributed wind in the U.S. has neither the high profile nor, to be honest, the big potential of solar power. But this bit player is growing fast, according to a new federal report.

Some 812 megawatts of distributed wind capacity were installed over the past ten years, according to the first-ever 2012 Market Report on Wind Technologies in Distributed Applications. But it’s the 2012 data that’s particularly impressive: The year saw nearly 3,800 wind turbines totaling 175 MW of capacity go in. That’s 22 percent of the 10-year total.

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A 100-kilowatt turbine in Vermont. (image via Northern Power Systems)

The breakdown on those 2012 numbers provides good insight into the range of what can be classified as “distributed wind.” Of those 175 MW, 138 MW comes from utility-scale turbines (those greater than 1 MW in size); 19 MW use midsize turbines (101 kilowatts to 1 MW); and 18.4 MW use small turbines (up through 100 kW).

Given this broad range, what unites “distributed wind” system? Here’s what the report, prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, says:

Distributed wind is defined in terms of technology application based on a wind project’s location relative to end-use and power-distribution infrastructure, rather than on technology size or project size. Distributed wind systems are connected either on the customer side of the meter (to meet the onsite load) or directly to the local grid (to support grid operations or offset large loads nearby).

Which states were driving the growth?

As a result of multiple projects using utility-scale turbines, Iowa deployed the most new overall distributed wind capacity, 37 MW, in 2012. Nevada deployed the most small wind capacity in 2012, with nearly 8 MW of small wind turbines installed in distributed applications. In the case of mid-size turbines, Ohio led all states in 2012 with 4.9 MW installed in distributed applications.

System costs varied widely by turbine size – bigger scale brought lower cost, with utility-scale turbines averaging $2,540/kW, mid-sized wind turbines at $2,810/kW, and newly manufactured (domestic and imported) small wind turbines at $6,960/kW. But note: “An emerging trend observed in 2012 was an increased use of refurbished turbines. The reported capacity-weighted average cost of refurbished small wind turbines installed in 2012 was $4,080/kW.”

The full 78-page report, which includes chapters on distributed wind in overview; the small wind turbine market; the mid-size wind turbine market; the utility-scale wind turbine marketfederal and state incentives and policies; business trends, developments, drivers and barries; and market outlook, is available online as a PDF.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Jerry Graf

    Are the cost numbers provided all-inclusive of the total real installation costs for each project? If not, what is not included?
    Who is paying for the installation costs? What percentage is still picked-up or off-set by taxpayers?
    What is the actual energy output per year for all this wind capacity? What is the average capacity factor for the utility scale, mid-size, and small scale projects indicated?
    In which areas of the country is capacity factor best? Worst? Are the turbines being installed primarily in the best locations? If not, why not?