“At the rate the WT6500 [off-grid wind turbine] is delivering power at our test site, it would take several millennia for the product to pay for itself in savings—not the 56 years it would take even with the 1,155 kWh quote we received.”
Is there a role for new renewables, specifically wind and solar PV in our electricity generation portfolio? And if not at the industrial-scale, grid-feeding level, what about at the micro-turbine level for local electricity use? This Consumer Reports (CR) study answers just this question.
Before examining the verdict, CR’s claim that wind power is the fastest growing source of new electric power deserves a critical comment. “Fast growing” from a small base too often is hype over substance.
Take the example of the lemonade stand of a little girl on our street, Suzie, just this summer. She sold one glass the first day, four the second, and 15 on the third. I’ll bet she is the fastest growing soft- beverage maker on the planet, but the big soft drink industry is not much concerned. I know this is a very simple comparison, but the lesson should be clear.
As far as having stand-alone wind turbines to meet energy needs is concerned, and basically this is what we are talking about here, is there a role? Well yes and no. It sort of depends.
A Little History
It might come as a surprise to many, but the U.S. was the world leader in wind turbine capacity for most of the 20th century. A later comer to this scene was Germany, which temporarily took the lead in the late 1990s, and of course lost it again in the early 21st century. The Germans had the worst record for renewable energy use in Europe and felt they had to do something about it.
The U.S. was the world leader for so long because of the size of the country and the limited extent of the electricity grid in some rural areas for much of this period.
What were the wind turbines used for? I’m not sure, but I imagine with some confidence it was to provide electricity to pump water and possibly to provide some lighting at night. Note the storage capability that pumped water provides, and wind tends to blow more at night than during the day.
Another interesting perspective is China, the major producer of off-grid wind turbines (100w to 10 kW), and I can imagine the domestic applications are similar to the U.S. as described above for remote areas.
What Role Micro-Turbines?
So what is the role for micro-turbines in modern societies? I suggest three:
(1) A hobby for those so inclined;
(2) A statement about one’s belief in the technology and be seen to be doing something about what the “experts,” as well as our democratic governments, are telling us we should be doing for a variety of reasons, and
(3) Some simple off-grid application.
Otherwise, wind turbines have no role today and for the foreseeable future, which is probably the next 50–100 years or so, if at all. Forget about the wild schemes that might be thought of, including high-flying platforms, and even offshore wind.
So what are the economics of micro turbines? Ed Perratore provides the financial analysis, and it is not pretty for all but the very rich (like Alec Baldwin’s proposed 120-foot-tall wind turbine in Suffolk County, New York).
Perratore’s “Recouping Cost of Wind Turbine May Take More Than a Lifetime” in ConsumerReports.com (August 6, 2012) follows:
Wind power has been the fastest growing source of new electric power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But if you’re considering a wind turbine to supplement your home’s power, consider our experience with one product, the Honeywell WT6500 Wind Turbine, a cautionary tale.
Among the few wind turbines that can be mounted on a roof, the WT6500 is similar to traditional wind turbines: Any unused energy it generates can be sent or sold to a utility for credit off your power bill. But it’s quieter than traditional turbines, and, according to the manufacturer WindTronics, starts generating power at lower wind speeds. The company claims the unit starts spinning from winds of a mere 0.5 mph—with electricity generated from only 3 mph. Traditional gearbox wind turbines, said the company, require at least 7.5-mph winds to start generating power.
A tool on Windtronics’s website had calculated we’d get 1,155 kWh per year at the 12-mph average it predicted for our area of Yonkers, New York. And the authorized installer, during his initial visit, didn’t say the roof of our headquarters might generate any less, but that rating is at a height of 164 feet, not the 33 feet WindTronics requires for rooftop installations.
In the 15 months since the turbine was installed, though, it has delivered less than 4 kWh—enough only to power a 12,000 Btu window air conditioner for one afternoon. A company representative in charge of installations worldwide recently visited our offices and confirmed that our test model was correctly installed. What’s more, he told us that while the WT6500 should start generating power at about 3 mph, the initial juice goes just to power the system’s inverter, which must be running before it supplies any AC power elsewhere. The true wind speed needed to start producing AC while the inverter is on is 6 mph, not far from the 7.5 mph needed by a traditional gearbox wind turbine.
The Honeywell costs $11,000 installed, comes with a five-year warranty and has a 20-year expected product life. But having a thorough site analysis by a manufacturer-authorized installer, backed by your own research on websites such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is vital.
At the rate the WT6500 is delivering power at our test site, it would take several millennia for the product to pay for itself in savings—not the 56 years it would take even with the 1,155 kWh quote we received.
Wind and solar cost 20-40 cents /kWh and displace 2-4 cents per kWh worth of natural gas. They continue to cost about 10 times the cost of clean natural gas electricity. Cost to consumer is often less as we the ratepayer and taxpayer are paying numerous subsidies. ( to calculate cost of gas saved per kWh multiply heat rate by gas price e.g 7000 BTU/kWh heat rate times $4 natural gas equals 28 $/MWH or 2.8 cents per kWh)
The analysis by Power Engineer is good as far as it goes, but it misses an important point which makes the wind case even less attractive (to say the least). Although wind might save gas plant production in electrical energy terms (kWh) it does not do so in heat rate terms (BTU) because the wind balancing gas plants are forced to operate at overall higher average heat rates (lower energy conversion efficiencies).
Further if the wind balancing gas plants are paid only for kWh delivered at market rates and suffer higher maintenance costs due to the stresses of responding to wind’s erratic output it can become uneconomical to operate them.
For an incremental cost analysis, all these additional costs should be added to the wind costs. For a full cost comparison to deliver reliable/useful electricity, which we must have on the grid, all the gas plant costs should be added to wind costs.
I have studied the wind industry here in Iowa and know that the wind turbines here in my state can never produce enough electricity to even pay for themselves without the tax credits? Why is this information not given out? Why support these companies with tax incentives for making equipment that needs so much service work? Can you give me a details cost break down showing how long the average wind turbine takes to pay for itself?
Once again, let me caution about using cost and price comparisons among wind and conventional generation. The former represents “found” energy, which is uncontrollable except through curtailment and unpredictably variable throughout the entire range of its installed capacity–in stark contrast to the firm capacity of the latter. In terms of modern expectations of machine performance, wind is a lemon. And to make it appear whole and functional, it requires vast supplementation, mainly from the very generation, like natural gas, it is initially “displacing.” This supplementation with be typically much more inefficient because of the wind volatility.
A wind/gas tandem may be one of the silliest contraptions in the entire history of power production, since it represents one Rube Goldberg-like system–but at the cost of two. Wind is wholly a supernumerary here, since the gas units will do all the important work.
Good to see Kent Hawkins back in the saddle.
This must have been a very difficult review for Consumer Reports to present.
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With regard to wind turbines in the rural US, I found this out when I was talking to my uncle and father on the occasion of my grandfathers funeral. Grandpa built a house in rural Iowa in 1915, working with his father. The were very modern for the time, and in the attic they had a bank of 6 volt storage batteries, charged with a windcharger, for lighting the house (and probably for other minor uses). For pumping water the traditional windmill was used. This was the first I had heard of this.
Thanks Andrew for your interesting and relevant story.
It nicely illustrates the importance of being aware of the past for present appreciation and guidance. I suggested that a micro wind turbine might have been used then where grid access was not available to generate electricity to pump water or for lighting for local use. Your comment does point out something that I did not explicitly state – the importance of electrical storage, then and now.
Someone has provided this interesting ad from the period. Of course the wind is “free” once you have the wind turbine, or wind mill in this case, in place with ancillary equipment, pumping mechanisms (whether mechanical or electro/mechanical), local distribution means etc to meet your own needs.
I presume the main use of wind mills then was to pump water with mechanical systems, and the ad speaks to this. There were many more such wind mills than electricity producing micro wind turbines throughout this period. I use the different names for the systems simply to differentiate the two pumping technologies, although there is in reality some overlap. Of course gas was saved as long as the wind supply kept up with demand, which must have been facilitated by using a means of water storage as a buffer.
Beware of projecting this concept to the present day situation when we are attempting to feed the grid on a large scale with large quantities of persistently erratic, wind turbine generated electricity in the absence of the necessary large-scale storage capability. There is no such storage capability equal to the task for the foreseeable future. Don’t be impressed with pumped-storage, flow batteries or other similar schemes, which simply do not scale in capacity and cost to the needed levels. No gas will be saved and quite possibly more will be consumed keeping the grid in balance with the presence of wind.
Enjoy this bit of nostalgia for what it is; a representation of the ability of our predecessors to use what was available at the time and match it to the appropriate task.
Here’s a link to the ad (and a book worthy of being read) http://www.greenillusions.org/chapter-8/
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The consumer reports and installer didn’t do it correctly. The wind turbine needs to be mounted away from or at least a few dozen feet above a rooftop as the building defeats most of the useable wind making it nearly useless, as they found out, in a convenient roof-top installation.