Thinking about installing a small wind turbine? This page is for you: Here is the information that the less scrupulous manufacturers, dealers, and installers of small wind turbines would rather you do not know.
By now you are probably thinking "why would these guys tell me the truth? They sell small wind turbines!". Yup, guilty as charged. We also want happy customers, and the two are not reconcilable unless we are upfront with you, our customer. Truth is, wind turbine sales are a tiny part of our revenue, and while we would regret losing you, we will still be able to put food on our kids' plates.
You should know that we at Solacity love wind turbines! Can't get enough of 'em. Where the neighbours see life-threatening, blade-shedding, bat-and-bird killing, noise-making contraptions, we see poetry in motion. Kinetic art at its finest; combining form, movement, and function all in one. We could stare at them for hours, while contemplating the meaning of life, the universe, and everything... and have... until the beer ran out. Despite all the information presented here, we are ardent supporters of small wind turbines. This page is about informing you, so you can make a decision based on fact and not marketing hype.
This discussion is mainly about factory-made grid-tie wind turbines. The off-grid crowd has an entirely different set of decisions and goals. The main ones are that for off-grid use economic viability in comparison with the electrical grid is not an issue, and a wind turbine can make up for the loss of sunlight (and PV electricity) in the winter months. For the DIY group there are several good turbine designs available; Hugh Piggott and the two Dans have written books that outline this step-by-step. Building your own turbine can be a great hobby, and some of the topics touched below apply (such as proper site selection), but this discussion is not about those. The decisions involved in making your own turbine, and the cost basis, have little overlap with a the process of having an installer put a factory-made turbine in your backyard.
Here are shortcuts to the sections discussed below:
What is a small wind turbine? Anything under, say, 10 meters rotor diameter (30 feet) is well within the "small wind" category. That works out to wind turbines with a rated power up to around 20 kW (at 11 m/s, or 25 mph). For larger wind turbines the manufacturers are usually a little more honest, and more money is available to do a good site analysis. While we use the Scirocco wind turbine for the examples below, the information is generic: The same applies to all the other brands and models, be they of the HAWT (Horizontal Axis Wind Turbine) or VAWT (Vertical Axis Wind Turbine) persuasion.
Truth is that unless you live in a very windy place, you will be better off putting your money into solar PV. Period.
It is hard to beat the advantages of solar: No moving parts. Warranties of 25 years are common for PV modules. No maintenance, other than the occasional hosing-off if you live in a dusty place. The installed price of a Scirocco wind turbine on a good height tower is about $50,000 (and we are not even counting the money you are going to sink into maintenance of that wind turbine). At the time of this writing that will buy you about 7 kW of installed solar panels. In our not-so-sunny Ottawa location those solar modules will produce around 8,000 kWh of electrical energy per average year, and they will do that for 30 years or more.
For a Scirocco wind turbine to produce that much energy per average year, you need an annual average wind speed of close to 5 m/s (11 mph) blowing at turbine hub height. It may not sound like much, but that is a reasonably windy place. Much of North America does not have that much wind at 100' or below. Keep in mind, you need that much wind just to break even in energy production vs. solar. To outweigh the disadvantages of small turbines you better have more!
The short version is that of every 100 home owners, there will likely be 85 or more that have a suitable location for solar energy, while there may be 1 (or none) with a suitable location for wind energy.
The first words of everyone calling us are "the wind is blowing here all the time". People consistently overestimate how windy their place actually is. They forget about all the times the wind does not blow, and only remember the windy days. It is human nature. Before even considering a small wind turbine you need to have a good idea of the annual average wind speed for your site. The gold standard is to install a data-logging anemometer (wind meter) at the same height and location as the proposed wind turbine, and let it run for 3 to 5 years. Truth is that it is usually much too expensive to do for small wind turbines, and while logging for 1 year could give you some idea and is the absolute minimum for worthwhile wind information, it is too short to be very reliable. For most of us, the more economical way to find out about the local average wind speed is by looking at a wind atlas, meteorological data, airport information, and possibly the local vegetation (for windy spots the trees take on interesting shapes).
If you do install an anemometer and measure the wind over one or more years, you should compare the annual average wind speed obtained from your anemometer data to the annual average of the nearest airport or meteo-station for that same year. This will tell you if your site is more or less windy than that airport or meteo-station, and by how much. Then compare that year's data to the long-term annual average wind speed, and you will know what to expect over the long term, corrected for your particular site. It will not be exact, but it will make your short-term anemometer data much more useful.
As the section above shows, anything under 5 m/s annual average wind speed is not going to be worth-while if you want any economic benefit out of the wind turbine. Even with government incentives, you would be better off with solar for most places. Let us take this a bit further, and assume your backyard is pretty windy, a full 6 m/s (13.4 mph) annual average wind speed at 100' height. You get an Eoltec Scirocco installed, and shell out $50,000 for that privilege. If the installer did her job properly, the turbine is spinning in nice, clean, laminar air, and it will produce around 13,000 kWh per year. You are the kind of person that wins the lottery on a regular basis, marries a beauty queen (or king), and has kids that all go to ivy-league universities; your wind turbine never breaks and you do not have to shell out a single buck for maintenance over 20 years. Now your turbine has produced around 260,000 kWh of electricity, which works out to 19.2 cents per kWh in cost. That is more than most people currently pay for their electricity from the grid.
Moral of this story: You need a very, very windy place for a small wind turbine to be economically feasible!
Wind turbines need wind to produce energy. That message seems lost, not only on most small wind turbine owners, but also on many manufacturers and installers of said devices. One of the world's largest manufacturers of small wind turbines, located in the USA, markets their flag-ship wind turbine with a 12 meter (36 feet) tower. Their dealers are trained to tell you it will produce 60% of your electricity bill. If you are one of those that is convinced the earth is flat, this is the turbine for you!
Wind turbines need wind. Not just any wind, but the nicely flowing, smooth, laminar kind. That cannot be found at 30 feet height. It can usually not be found at 60 feet. Sometimes you find it at 80 feet. More often than not it takes 100 feet of tower to get there. Those towers cost as much or more, installed, as the turbine itself. How much tower you need for a wind turbine to live up to its potential depends on your particular site; on the trees and structures around it etc. Close to the ground the wind is turbulent, and makes a poor fuel for a small wind turbine.
The graph on the right shows how a change in tower height affects the available power in the wind for a site that does not have obstructions (buildings, trees etc.): Besides getting above turbulent air it can often be financially worth it to go with a taller tower, since so much more energy can be harvested.
Wind turbines do work; put them in nice, smooth air and their energy production is quite predictable (we will get to predicting it a bit further on in this story). The honest manufacturers do not lie or exaggerate, their turbines really can work as advertised in smooth, laminar airflow. However, put that same turbine on a 40 feet tower and even if the annual average wind speed is still 5 m/s at that height, its energy production will fall far short of what you would predict for that value. How short is anybody's guess, that is part of the point; it is impossible to predict the effect of turbulence other than that it robs the energy production potential of any wind turbine. Roof tops, or other locations on a house, make for poor turbine sites. They are usually very turbulent and on top of that their average wind speeds are usually very low.
Be sure to read our section on wind turbine site selection, understand it, and no wind installer will ever pull the wool over your eyes again.
Since you are working hard to read this rather lengthy article, here is some entertainment. The 'intermission' if you like. So, put your feet up and enjoy the next picture: It's a prime example of much that is wrong with the small wind world. The fact that an installer would even consider installing in a place like that. Customers that are too uninformed to know better (and their installer clearly is not interested in educating them). Turbine manufacturers that deliver standard towers that are much too short to be effective; this tower plus turbine is just 23 feet tall! Then there is the claim by the manufacturer (dutifully parroted by the installer) that this turbine will offset "up to 30%" of their electricity bill. The last one is not really a lie I suppose: If in reality it offsets just 2% of the owners bill, technically that still falls within that "up to 30%"...
The world of small wind turbines is much like the wild-west of a century ago: Anything goes, and no claim is too bold. Wind turbine manufacturers will even routinely make claims that are not supported by the Laws of Physics. Energy production claims are often exaggerated, as are power curves. In fact, this is the rule, not the exception. Those manufacturers that tell the truth are the exception. Many manufacturers have never tested their wind turbines under real-world conditions. Some have never tested their turbine before selling it to unsuspecting customers. We are not joking! Because we sell grid-tie inverters for small wind turbines we have a front-row seat when it comes to actual operation of turbines of many makes and models. It turns out that some do not work; they self-destruct within days, and sometimes run away and blow their inverter within seconds (clearly nobody at the factory bothered to ever test it).
The energy it calculates is in kWh per year, the diameter of the wind turbine rotor is in meters, the wind speed is annual average for the turbine hub height in m/s. The equation uses a Weibull wind distribution with a factor of K=2, which is about right for inland sites. An overall efficiency of the turbine, from wind to electrical grid, of 30% is used. That is a reasonable, real-world efficiency number. Here is a table that shows how average annual wind speed, turbine size, and annual energy production relate:
For the metrically challenged, here is the same table using imperial numbers:
How accurate are these numbers? This is the energy production a good horizontal-axis wind turbine can reach, if installed at the perfect site and height. These are the upper limit though, if your turbine produces anywhere near the number predicted by this table you should be doing your happy-dance! Most small wind turbine installations underperform significantly, in fact, the average seems to be about half of the predicted energy production (and many do not even reach that). There can be many reasons for the performance shortfall; poor site selection, with more turbulent air than expected often has much to do with it. The reports in the 'real world' section following below illustrate this point. Many small wind turbines do not reach 30% overall efficiency, some are close to 0% (this is no joke!), so these numbers have only one direction to go. For off-grid battery charging wind turbines you should deduct 20 - 30% of the predicted numbers, due to the lower efficiency of a turbine tied to batteries, and the losses involved in charging batteries.
VAWTs (Vertical Axis Wind Turbines)
The energy number that is left over should be a good approximation of what you can expect from that VAWT. Compare the resulting numbers with those mentioned in just about all sales brochures of VAWT type turbines and it should be immediately clear that their marketing people are smoking the good stuff. There is no relation to physical reality in their numbers, they are consistently much too high. Keep in mind that the energy production numbers calculated here are 'best case'; for a turbine in nice, smooth air. Most VAWTs are placed very close to the ground, or on buildings, where there is little wind and lots of turbulence. Under those conditions they will do much, much worse than predicted.
You have read this far, and still want to install a wind turbine? Then it is time for a reality check: Most (some would say all) installed small wind turbines do abysmally poor in comparison with their energy production numbers as calculated above. That is the message from a number of studies, usually on behalf of governments that subsidize wind turbines. Do not just take our word for this, read it for yourself:
There are several common threads that emerge from all the reports: Building-mounted or roof-mounted small wind turbines do not work. Period. There is little wind at the rooftop, and it is very turbulent. This makes for poor 'fuel' for a wind turbine.
Most installers overrate the available wind resource. The majority of small wind turbine installations underperforms their predictions, often by a wide margin. Since wind speed is the most important parameter for turbine energy production, getting that wrong has large consequences (the power in the wind goes with the cube of the wind speed, so double the wind speed and the power in it is 2 * 2 * 2 = 8x as much). You have to be realistic about your annual average wind speed.
Most small wind turbines do not perform quite as well as their manufacturers want you to believe. That should come as no surprise at this point. What may be surprising is that even the turbines of the more honourable manufacturers that are honest about performance fall short, more often than not. The likely cause is turbulence and improper site selection.
It is unfortunate to see how well marketing for small wind turbines is working: I often see people post questions on forums, where they are looking for a wind turbine "with a low cut-in wind speed". Depending on whom you ask, the cut-in wind speed is either the wind speed where the turbine starts turning, or the wind speed where it starts to produce some power. For most wind turbines it is around 2.5 - 3.5 m/s (5.5 - 8 mph), and it is an utterly meaningless parameter.
There is no energy in the wind at those wind speeds, nothing to harvest for the turbine. While it may make you feel good to see your expensive yard toy spin, it is not doing anything meaningful in a breeze like that: To give you some idea, a wind turbine with a diameter of 6 meters (pretty large as small wind turbines go) can realistically produce just 120 Watt at 3.5 m/s wind speed. That same turbine would be rated at 6 kW (or more, see the next section), so energy production at cut-in really is just a drop in the bucket. What is more, due to the way grid-tie inverters work, you are about as likely to be loosing energy around cut-in wind speed to keep the inverter powered, as you are in making any energy, resulting in a net-loss of electricity production.
Forget about cut-in wind speed. It is not important.
Is a 10 kW turbine better than a 6 kW windmill? Wrong! Rated power is one of least interesting parameters of any wind turbine, right after cut-in wind speed.
The trouble with rated power is that it does not tell you anything about energy production. Your utility company charges you for the energy you consume. Likewise, for a small wind turbine you should be interested in the energy it will produce, for your particular site, with your particular annual average wind speed. Rated power of the turbine does not do that. To find out about energy production take a look at the tables presented earlier.
There is more trouble with rated power: It only happens at a "rated wind speed". And the trouble with that is there is no standard for rated wind speed. Since the energy in the wind increases with the cube of the wind speed, it makes a very large difference if rated power is measured at 10 m/s (22 mph), or 12 m/s (27 mph). For example, that 6 meter wind turbine from the previous section could reasonably be expected to produce 5.2 kW at 10 m/s, while it will do 9 kW at 12 m/s!
Most in the industry agree that 11 m/s (24.6 mph) makes for a good rated wind speed. Go above it and very soon the turbine should be hard at work to protect itself from destruction, by furling, governing, or shutting down. Those that do not will likely face a short and tortured life. If we agree on 11 m/s, an equation for a realistic rated power number is as follows:
This equation assumes a 30% over-all efficiency grid-tie horizontal axis wind turbine, with decent blades. Wind turbines with a poor blade profile will have a lower rated power, same for those with inefficient alternators. We have put the same information in a table, both for metric and imperial numbers:
Rated power of a wind turbine may not be quite as meaningless as cut-in wind speed, though its use is limited. It could have some utility to quickly compare, or get a feel for, the size of the wind turbine, but only if those rated power numbers were taken at the same rated wind speed, and if the manufacturer is giving you a realistic number (many inflate rated power). A much better measure of turbine size is, simply, their diameter. As shown above it is by far the best predictor for power output.
Yeah, right! If you believe that, we have some land in southern Louisiana that we would like to sell to you...
VAWT type turbines have no inherent advantage over HAWT type turbines. There, we have said it! VAWTs do not do any better in turbulent wind than HAWTs. Leaving the Savonius type VAWTs out (the type that looks like an oil drum cut in half - they have very poor efficiency anyway), both horizontal and vertical type turbines rely on an airfoil, a wing, to produce power. Airfoils simply do not work well in turbulent air; the wind needs to hit them at just the right angle and eddies wreak havoc. Couple that with the insistence of vertical axis turbine manufacturers to install their devices on very short towers or rooftops, and you get the picture. It will not work.
Manufacturers often claim that their vertical axis turbine is superior to a horizontal one, because it always faces the wind. So does any horizontal axis turbine, thanks to their tail or yaw mechanism. If the airflow is such that wind directions change drastically from one second to the next it means you have lots of turbulence, and that means it is a poor place to put any wind turbine, HAWT or VAWT.
Manufacturers often claim that their vertical axis turbine is better at extracting power from low speed winds. Unfortunately the laws of physics get in the way here: There is very little power in low speed winds. The blade of a vertical or horizontal type turbine is equally good at extracting that power, though with the vertical type the blades move at an angle to the wind where they do not extract energy for part of every rotation, adding drag and making a vertical type turbine just a little less efficient than a similar sized horizontal one. There is no advantage when it comes to low winds.
A Darrieus type vertical axis wind turbine (the egg beater type) can work almost as good as a horizontal axis turbine. Unfortunately they have a number of inherent issues that put them at a disadvantage: Since they are usually tall and relatively narrow structures the bending forces on their main bearing (at the bottom) are very large. There are similar issues with the forces on the blades. This means that to make a reliable vertical axis turbine takes more material, and more expensive materials, in comparison to a horizontal type turbine. This makes them inherently more expensive, or less reliable, or both.
Before you get the wrong impression: We really like VAWTs here at Solacity. We think they look cool and we would love to see more of them. Especially ones that actually work. The reality at this time is that if you want to produce energy, get a HAWT, if you want really good looking yard-art, get a VAWT.
A little comparison shopping can turn up some amazing deals on wind turbines: Instead of paying $20,000 for a 6kW turbine, you can have the same shipped from the far east for just $5,000. The deals over there sound too good to be true. And for the most part they are.
As suppliers of inverters for turbines good, bad, and just plain ugly, we have pretty well seen it all when it comes to turbine failure. We can tell you unequivocally that you get what you pay for. Depending on your sense of adventure that can be good or bad; if you plan to go cheap, plan on (you) being the manufacturer's R&D department and test center. Being a really good do-it-yourselfer with an understanding of wind turbines, alternators, and all things electric will come in very handy too. Just in case you do not believe us, you can read about it in this Green Power Talk thread. There are more threads with similar content on the forum, just browse around a little.
Where the reputable, and more expensive manufacturers are good in honouring their warranties, you are likely on your own with the cheap stuff. Even with a good warranty, take our word for it that you would much rather not make use of it. Even if the manufacturer supplies replacement parts, it is still expensive to install them. Not to mention that your turbine will not be making energy meanwhile.
There is one more area where buyers may get a false sense of security: Several states in the US have lists of "approved" wind turbines for their rebate programs. An example of this is the California list. The problem is that approval for this list, and the performance data provided (such as rated power and energy production) are essentially self-certified. The less-scrupulous manufacturers can 'manufacture' data and submit it under the pretence that it was measured. The only value of those lists is in telling you what rebates are available, they do not provide reliable turbine information.
If your vision of a wind turbine is that you pay someone to install it, and then rake in the energy savings, you will likely be very disappointed.
The reliability of small wind turbines is (still) a problem. Even the good ones break much more frequently than we would like, and none will run for 20 years without the need to replace at least some part(s). Despite their apparent simplicity, a small wind turbine is nowhere near as reliable as the average car (and even cars will not run for 20 years without stuff breaking). If you are going to install a small wind turbine you should expect that it will break. The only questions are when and how often.
With that in mind it makes a great deal of sense to use a tilt-up tower for your turbine. It makes maintenance and repairs much safer (on the ground) and cheaper. Crane fees, or having turbine installers hang off the top of a tower for long durations, tend to get very expensive. You should also budget for repairs, they will happen. Parts may be free under warranty, your installer's time is not.
Since we mentioned maintenance: Consider that in a reasonably windy place a wind turbine can run 7000 hours or more per year. If it were a car, going at 50 km/h (30 mph), it would travel 350,000 km (or 200,000+ miles). That means you should plan for an annual inspection, and perform needed maintenance (greasing for example), regardless of the recommendation of the manufacturer. It is just as important to inspect and maintain the tower annually. We know of a tower that collapsed because nuts worked themselves loose from their bolts over 2½ years time, no inspection nor maintenance were done during that time, ultimately leading to its undoing. Wind turbines and towers live in a very harsh environment. It is important to check for issues, such as loose bolts or tower guy wires that need re-tensioning, before they become a problem.
Between maintenance and repairs, it would greatly help and keep your cost down if you can do some of the work yourself: Being able to safely tilt the turbine tower up or down will save you money. Understanding how the turbine works, how to stop it safely, how to trouble-shoot at least the minor issues can keep you in the black. We understand that installing a wind turbine is not for everyone. In fact, towers are dangerous, and for a good installation the devil is in the details. An experienced installer can make a real difference in putting up a turbine that will work better, and be more reliable over time. We reallly encourage you to have a professional installer to do the initial installation. However, throwing up your hands and calling your installer for routine maintenance, or every time there is a minor issue, will likely make you an unhappy wind turbine owner (even if it is your installer's dream).
What? You are still reading? If we did not talk you out of a wind turbine by now there may still be hope! There certainly are situations where a small wind turbine makes perfect sense: If you are off-grid you should definitely consider adding a wind turbine. Wind and solar tend to complement each other beautifully; the sunny days tend to be not very windy, while the windy days tend to have little sun. Wind turbines generally produce most energy in the winter, when solar panels fall short.
If you live in a really windy place, a small wind turbine can make economic sense. Just keep in mind that when we say "really windy" we really mean it! The information above should give you a good idea of what to expect from a small wind turbine, so you can do the calculations yourself.
Another situation where a small wind turbine can make good sense is in case your province, state, or country has rebates or other incentives that make it cheap to install one (just keep ongoing maintenance and repair cost in mind as well). While we would like to advocate responsible spending of government money, the small wind industry needs many more customers to mature. It takes time and installation numbers for manufacturers to work out the bugs, make better turbines, and make them cheaper.
Going forward, there is hope for the small wind future! Certification programs are under way in various places to provide real turbine performance data. In North America this is being spearheaded by the Small Wind Certification Council, which requires third-party certification of turbine performance in a standardized fashion. Manufacturers will no longer be able to fudge power curves, or specify 'rated power' at hurricane-force wind speeds. This will allow you, the consumer, to compare turbines on a much more even footing.
Finally, what if you do not have much wind to speak off, no expectation to ever earn back the investment in a small wind turbine, but you just like the looks and want to promote the idea of a greener life style. Those can be fine reasons to install one too. Just go for it!