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Backyard wind for all: iPhone apps & hardware store turbines

Experts on both sides of the Atlantic are predicting rapid growth in the market for backyard wind turbines in the coming decade.

Already, the market is hot. In the US, the small wind sector grew by 78% in 2008. British small wind manufacturers told reuters that sales have tripled in the past year. “It is the fastest growing part of the wind market,” Stephen Mahon of venture capital firm Low Carbon Investors UK told the news service.

A recent study by consultants Pike Research claims that for some, small wind has become cheaper than solar. And the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has projected a 30-fold growth in small wind installations by 2013, thanks in large part to the subsidies being offered by the stimulus package.

Even major multinationals seem to agree that small wind has a strong future. In April of 2009, GE invested 10 million in Southwest Windpower, the leading manufacturer of backyard wind turbines.

Despite the growth, small wind- that is, wind turbines big enough for just a single home or office- is still a tiny part of the total wind market. “Small wind” systems are defined as those rated for 100 kilowatts or less are less than 1% of the wind energy market in terms of installed capacity. Their total capacity was just 55 to 60 kilowatts in 2007 compared to the 16.8 gigawatts of the overall wind market, though the AWEA estimates that total installed small wind capacity will jump to 1700 MW by the end of 2013.

Stimulus for wind

Besides being impractical for many residential customers, small wind systems can also be expensive, with higher installation costs than solar (photovoltaics) and a historic lack of subsidies like those given to residential solar. 

The Obama administration’s stimulus package could help change this. It offers a 30% investment tax credit on installation to consumers who buy small wind turbines. Since the installation of small wind turbines are more construction-intensive than solar, this is a significant offer.

Mainly due to this eight-year subsidy- the tax credit is available through the end of 2016-, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) is projecting a 30-fold growth in small wind installations within the next five years

“This legislation marked the first federal incentive for the smallwind industry in over 20 years and provides the industry with stable, long-term policy that has historically been out of reach for other renewables industries. Industry members value its passage as an important step toward achieving political parity with solar photovoltaics (PV) industry.”

Cheaper than solar?

In the race for “grid parity”- price per kilowatt-hour on par with conventional forms of electricity- wind, according to those at AWEA, is now on a level playing field with solar PV.

In December of 2009, a report from Pike Research claimed that already on a cost-per-watt basis many are finding small wind turbines to be less expensive than solar panels. Since there are a wide range of factors affecting installation costs, the price of small wind is tough to pinpoint, but it tends to fall between $3-6/Watt.

Pike’s report, “Small Wind Power”, estimated that the market will reach $412 million by 2013, less than the 30-fold increase predicted by the AWEA, but still a nearly three-fold increase from 2008.

Making it easier to shop for a backyard turbine

Historically, backyard wind power has been more popular among off-grid homeowners as a way to supplement their solar arrays, but that is changing. Today, the AWEA claims the market has become dominated by grid-connected units and this trend will likely continue as these systems- which are larger than the off-grid variety- become more affordable.

In 2006, Southwest Windpower released the first small wind turbine designed specifically for grid-tied residential use. Since the release of the Skystream, the market has heated up and there are now a wide array of options for purchasing a backyard turbine. 

For those concerned about aesthetics, there are vertical-axis turbines like the Windspire. If backyard space or sound are an issue, there’s the quiet, rooftop-mounted Swift turbine. For those without much wind, there’s are low-wind-speed options like the Wind Terra.

Small wind has arrived at your hardware store as well. In February 2010, Ace Hardware will begin selling the Honeywell Wind Turbine, a system that can generate power from breezes as slow as 2 miles per hour. Hardware stores like Lowes sell turbines by special order.

An iPhone app to help us feel the wind

The options for backyard wind turbines are growing, but unlike solar, few of us know much about wind, and whether it would be worthwhile installing it in our backyard. One major manufacturer is hoping to change that with an iPhone app. 

In October 2009, Mariah Power, the manufacturers of the Windspire small wind turbine, released an application that uses the iphone’s internal microphone to capture wind noise and an algorithm then coverts it into a decibel rating.

Since wind turbines have minimum wind requirements, Windspire hopes this app will help raise awareness of just what kind of wind might be blowing in your neighborhood. “If I ask how much wind do you have outside, most people wouldn’t know,” explain Mariah’s Amy Berry, to the New York Times. “People can hold their iPhone up in their air and say, ‘Oh I do have 10 m.p.h. wind.’” (The Windspire’s minimum requirement is 10 m.p.h.).

Ms. Berry warned that the app wasn’t meant to accurately determine whether you should buy a backyard turbine or not, given that site assessments use much more extensive data. “You need to know wind speed over the course of a year, and our dealers are all trained to do onsite assessments. We’re using the app as a way to get people thinking about wind more.”