Energy [kWh] = 2.09 • Diameter 2 [m] • Wind 3 [m/s]
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:
||Annual Energy (kWh)
|Wind Speed (m/s)
For the metrically challenged, here is the same table using imperial numbers:
||Annual Energy (kWh)
|Wind Speed (mph)
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)
HAWT vs. VAWT
The tables above are for HAWTs, the regular horizontal “wind mill” type we are all familiar with. For VAWTs the tables can be used as well, but you have to convert their dimensions. Calculate the frontal area (swept area) of the VAWT by multiplying height and width, or for a curved egg-beater approximate the area. Now convert the surface area to a diameter, as if it were a circle: Diameter = √(4 • Area / Pi). That will give you a diameter for the table. Look up the energy production for that diameter and your average annual wind speed and do the following:
- For a Darrieus or giromill type VAWT (the “egg beater” type): Take at least 25% off of the energy production number
- For a Savonius type VAWT (the “two half oil-drums” type): Take at a very minimum 60% off of the energy production number, leaving just 40% at best
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.
Small Wind Turbine Real World Performance
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:
The Warwick Wind Trials report, in Great Britain: This evaluates 26 building-mounted small wind turbines. For anyone considering putting a turbine on their roof this is an eye opener; the results are piss-poor. Some turbines used more power than they produced!
The CADMUS Group report, in Massachusetts: 21 sites with small wind turbines were evaluated. The best sites produced around 80% of predicted energy yield, most were around 50% – 60% of predicted energy production.
The British Energy Savings Trust report titled “Location, location, location”: This requires some reading-between-the-lines as the Trust is rather closely aligned with the small wind industry. They looked at 57 turbines for a year, a number of them building mounted, others tower mounted, and concluded that building mounted turbines did very poorly.
The Zeeland small wind turbine test, The Netherlands: Test of 11 small wind turbines at the same site, same height. The original test report is in Dutch, in three parts [part 1, part 2, part 3]. Paul Gipe converted the numbers to English. Most produced less than half of their projected energy production, some much less.
Paul Gipe’s Wind Works articles: If you are still not convinced, a little casual browsing through Paul’s articles should do the job. Paul Gipe is a well respected impartial writer of books and articles about wind energy.
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.
The Myth of Low “Cut-In” Wind Speed
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.
Why You Should Ignore “Rated Power”
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, not power. 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:
Power [Watt] = 192 • Diameter 2 [m]
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:
at 11 m/s (Watt)
at 25 mph (Watt)
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.
A VAWT Does Not Have Any of ‘Those’ Problems, Right?!
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 in theory work almost as good as a horizontal axis turbine. Actual measurement of one of the better designs out there, the UGE VisionAir5, does not bear that out though: It measures in at a pitiful 11% efficiency at 11 m/s wind speed, while a Bergey Excel-6 HAWT clocks in at 22% efficiency for that same wind speed, twice as much. You can read about it in Paul Gipe’s article. Besides efficiency issues, a Darrieus VAWT unfortunately has 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. For comparison, that same UGE VisionAir5 weighs 756 kg vs. the Bergey Excel-6 at 350 kg. Keep in mind that the UGE turbine only sweeps about half the area of the Bergey, the latter is a much larger turbine! This makes VAWTs 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, or architectural bling for your building, 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.
Small Wind Turbine Reliability
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) problematic. 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 periods of time, 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 the 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 really 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).
So When Does a Small Wind Turbine Make Sense?
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, and your electricity rate is very high, 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!