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Small-Scale Wind Power November 17, 2011

Posted by Jason in Writing.
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As with so many locations around the world, Montana’s wind attracts energy producers and investors eager to prove the feasibility of large “wind farms” and provide a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. With most of the eastern plains seeing average wind speeds from 14 to 20 mph, there is great potential for success. Ironically however, some of the highest winds, such as those often found in Montana, don’t yield quite the generating power that one might expect. The recent Judith Gap installation has 90 large turbines, nearly 300 feet tall and with blades as long as 126 feet. But the complex turbine components cannot withstand winds over 55 mph and must be shut down – just when the wind itself has the most power generating potential.

Twisting in the Wind
A local wind turbine expert hopes to encourage individuals and small cooperatives to consider another alternative. After months of design, plus coordination with the local utility, Ben Reed of Winpower West in Billings put a special kind of turbine to work. It was the first of its kind to be put into service in the U.S. – not in California or New Hampshire, but just down the road in Big Timber, Montana. What makes it different? It uses newer technology and materials, as well as a patented blade mechanism, to allow full power production at all wind speeds – from just 6 mph up to a blistering 134 mph. In addition, the UK-based manufacturer, Evance, builds the equipment to take weather as rough as Montana’s. “The blades and generator are designed to handle corrosive, salty air, since they are put to use on England’s coasts,” explained Reed. They are even tested to withstand 60 mph sandstorms.

This versatility, combined with lower maintenance, shorter towers, and state and federal financial assistance and incentives, gives Reed confidence that small-scale turbines will see a resurgence in popularity. Resurgence? Indeed, until the 1930’s, most rural areas did not have access to major electrical infrastructure and transmission lines. The most common source of electrical power until that time was small DC wind generators located next to the ranch house. Even today, the feasibility of large-scale wind farm projects depends on the location of nearby high voltage transmission capability, or must account for the construction of new lines – with a resulting cost increase. Now, technology allows for a return to the old ways, with some added benefits.

Ebb and Flow

Modern electrical devices are designed to run on AC rather than DC power. But this is a relatively minor hurdle, requiring only slightly different generator components. Of greater importance is the need for constant, reliable, steady power that is available even when the wind is not blowing. This is where modern electrical transmission allows for the best of both worlds. Rather than be “off the grid”, the Big Timber installation uses “net metering” to share excess energy production with the main utility provider. With this arrangement, the owner utilizes the wind-generated electricity when it is available and reverts to grid power when it is not. On the other hand, if he uses less than the turbine generates, it is sent back onto the grid and his monthly bill is reduced by the difference between the power used and the excess provided.

The concept of net metering takes different forms depending on the particular utility provider and various state regulations. Depending on your location, there may be a cap on the power credit or the purchase price may be different that the individual’s retail rate. For example, Montana’s investor-owned utilities are required by law to allow at least up to a 50 kilowatt installation to obtain net metering credit, while Wyoming utilities are only required to accept up to 25 kilowatts – though individual utilities may choose to accept more. Montana’s smaller cooperatives allow a wider variety of alternative generation credits (including solar thermal, photovoltaics, and geothermal electric) but are only required to accept up to 10 kilowatts. Fortunately, there is a web site with up-to-date comparisons of state and federal regulations at www.dsireusa.org.

Another challenge facing those considering a small wind turbine is the lack of recent experience on the part of the smaller cooperatives. Many are just beginning to explore the various means of assessing alternative energy credits, and the near future will surely see several firsts as new technologies and regulations are implemented and evaluated. Individuals should not be discouraged however. Reed notes that both Park Electric and the Yellowstone Valley cooperatives have been quite helpful and are excited about the potential for future sustainable energy production. He hopes to see several more of the Evance turbines in use over the next few years.

Financial
While advances in manufacturing and materials have allowed greater efficiencies in virtually all types of energy production, wind turbines have a great financial advantage over solar photovoltaics. While solar still costs around 20 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), wind is now in the range of 6 to 12 cents per kWh. As more turbines are manufactured and installed, these prices are expected to continue declining. Further promoting the advancement of alternative production, state and federal governments have several incentives available to individuals and small businesses who want to invest in the future.

In Montana, these take the form of personal and corporate tax credits, property tax exemptions, rebates, and depreciation for business capital assets. This is in addition to federal credits as well as financial assistance in the form of USDA grants and loans, renewable energy bonds, and Department of Energy loan guarantees. With the myriad options available, a potential buyer should consult with the manufacturer, as well as a tax adviser, to determine the total cost and payback period of the installation. For those who desire to be completely off the grid with an independent power source, most financial incentives are still available, but the installation is slightly different. In order to allow a reliable supply, there will be additional costs for batteries and reconfigured turbines. And of course, you don’t get to sell your excess energy to the community.

Down the Road

Reed sees a great future for small-scale turbines in the region. With greater emphasis on sustainable practices, many small businesses are looking to cheaper, more efficient means of production. In particular, he predicts future turbines may be used to power irrigation pivots and small cooperative agricultural facilities. Their decreasing cost, typical 20-year life span, and greater reliability allow these power generating machines to change the way individuals can put the wind to work.

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