Finding Dollars Blowing In The Wind

Renewable energy is all the rage, grabbing headlines everywhere we turn, but for the uninformed, turning trends into tangibles is sometimes a tricky business. No doubt many executives want to contribute positively to slowing global warming and reducing dependence on fossil fuels, but the financial realities of a very tough economy can make even the most altruistic of Boards take pause. Shareholders, after all, mostly want strong growth. Doing good is sometimes pushed to an afterthought.

T. Boone Pickens and President Barak Obama have brought wind energy to the forefront of our minds with images of big wind farms harnessing a never ending, free resource to power far flung cities and homes. That is, of course, if they can figure out a way to get the power to where it’s needed. Transmission lines are notoriously expensive and time consuming to construct. What’s talked about less often is the opportunity right in our own backyard to use the wind where it’s needed by installing a small wind turbine.

Small wind (defined as 100kW and less) is gaining momentum as a viable and cost effective solution to generating electricity at locations where it’s needed. And the upside can be enormous! Wind is cheaper than solar, has a much smaller footprint (think of the size of the tower foundation versus the comparable hundreds or thousands of square feet of solar panels) and works 24 hours a day. In Michigan especially, which has an excellent wind resource, the opportunities can be very attractive.

But as with so many emerging technologies, there are many manufacturers, no clearly dominant players and a confusing swath of different claims and products. How do you know what’s right for you and how much money you can really save?

There are a couple of steps to take to make sure you’re heading in the right direction:

1. Find a company with a track record. How long have then been around? How many products do they offer? How much information is available about them?

2. Understand your resource. Do you have enough wind? The best way to find this out is by installing an anemometer at your site at the height you intend to mount your turbine. Second best are online wind maps, third is a qualitative evaluation. Upon request a good company will provide this service for you, albeit at a fee.

3. What are the economics of your purchase? Again, a reputable company will walk you through the financial models of the different types of small wind technologies, including product and installation cost, siting, O&M expenses, insurance, payback time, state and federal rebates and incentives and other significant variables to help you understand the project economics. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard-nosed questions. And although no small wind manufacturer will guarantee annual energy output (the wind being variable after all) they can give you a range of expected power generation given the historical averages at your site.

4. Understand your local planning and zoning considerations as well as interconnection to the local utility grid. Wind technology looks much simpler than it is, don’t be fooled by claims by manufacturers that encourage you to self install. Acquiring permits, navigating the labyrinth of zoning codes, managing neighbor concerns, siting the turbine appropriately and ensuring assembly that doesn’t invalidate your warranty all should be trusted to a professional certified by the manufacturer. It may cost a little more up front, but it will be money well spent in the end.

Sound complicated? Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be if you do your homework and find the right company. What can you expect from your turbine? How much power can it produce? It all depends on how much wind you have, how high you can mount the turbine and how big the unit is. Small wind turbines can be mounted in arrays of several units, or a single larger unit mounted higher up. In general the minimum height required is 30 feet above the nearest obstruction within 500 feet. And for trees this means the maximum height the trees will grow to over the next 20 years!

If you meet all the conditions above then you can expect to power as much or as little of your home or business as needed depending on the number of units installed. The manufacturer will ask you for your annual energy usage and will tell you the annual energy output for the various systems they support allowing you to see exactly what is required to meet your needs. The utility will net your annual production against your usage at the end of the year and adjust your bill accordingly.

So don’t be afraid to consider something new, and maybe you too can find dollars, blowing in the wind-¦.

Ian Gardner is the Chief Executive Officer of HelixWind, a small wind firm in San Diego.