Topics: energy, environment
Wasn’t it just over a year ago I was saying that everyone should be using solar power because it’s so awesome and cheap?
Yeah, strike that.
More than a year later and there’s been no significant drop in the cost of solar panels and other equipment you need to get your home off the local power grid and running completely on natural, wonderful sunshine. I’m sorry, but when it costs $32,000 to install a solar power system, I think I’m going to stick with writing checks to the electric company for about $50 a month.
And while I don’t necessarily mind writing a $50 check to Pepco each month, I’m running low on checks, and a check reorder is expensive! Like, 12 bucks! Plus shipping! That means it’s once again time to reconsider alternative energy sources. And what’s the Punny Money energy du jour? Why, it’s Mother Nature’s other natural power source: moving air.
While I was sitting at home last night listening to winter winds pound our home at up to 50 miles an hour, it occurred to me that I could be running our whole home off those gusts right now if I had a turbine sitting on my roof. A quick trip to the internet later and I was pricing wind turbines and accessories. Here’s what I found:
- A small and sleek wind generator for under $500. Providing up to 400 watts of power, this model is simple to install and can be powering your blender just minutes after you take it out of the box.
- A higher-end, higher-powered turbine for just over $2,000. You can get up to 900 watts with this thing, and that’s enough power to run most of the gadgets and appliances in your home.
- The grand-daddy of residential windmills for $5,500. You’ll laugh at cold winter winds as you run your electric furnace off this baby.
Compare that to a solar panel which could set you back $80 with just enough power to run your night light.
So what’s stopping everyone from running out and slapping wind turbines on their homes right now? Not a dang thing. Except for these five things:
- Equipment and installation. Unfortunately you can’t just plug any of the above turbines into your home and start running your dishwasher and A/C off wind power. You’ll need to purchase separate equipment, like converters and wiring, and probably have all of it professionally hooked into your home’s electrical system. This could add a couple thousand dollars to the cost of getting your wind power system off the ground.
- Building permits. Many areas won’t allow their residents to install even tiny wind turbines because they look silly or for another reason we’ll cover in a minute. Because you’ll need to place your generator high, you might need to install a tower or large pole, and most places require you to obtain a special, hard-to-get permit when adding parts to your home that exceed certain height restrictions.
- They can be noisy. Small wind turbines are a lot quieter now than they used to be, but one that’s big enough to power your home will probably make at least as much noise as a well-tuned clothes washer. So unless your neighbors already do their laundry on their roof, you might get some objections to the noise levels coming from your turbine.
- They’re still not that cheap. Sure, you may be able to power an energy-efficient home off that $5,500 model, but it will still take you several years to recoup the costs of installation. Fortunately the typical wind generator lasts 20 years with little or no maintenance, and you’d be able to make most of that money back if you sold your home.
- You need wind. Here’s the kicker for about 70% of Americans: the average wind turbine won’t spin in anything less than 8-10 mile-per-hour winds, and you won’t reach peak energy production without sustained winds of 20 mph. That said, even if you go most of the year with just a gentle breeze running along your sidewalk, you’d be surprised how much the wind can pick up just 50 feet above your home. That’s why turbines are much more effective the higher you can install them.
Unfortunately for us, our off-the-grid energy possibilities are pretty much nil thanks to an abundance of trees (no solar power, lower wind power potential), lack of steady wind (no wind power), and retarded local governance (so no building permits for a 100-foot-high turbine). I guess that means I better tell the hamsters to get back in their wheels.
(For more information on residential wind power, visit the American Wind Energy Association’s Small Wind website.)