In 2010, Robin and Duncan Ross, owners of Arrowhead Spring Vineyards in Lockport, New York, needed alternative power generation capabilities for their growing vineyard. Until then, the only options in their rural community were electricity and propane. They supplemented with firewood to keep heating costs down but, as the operation grew, it became too expensive.
“This is likely the case in many rural areas where natural gas isn’t available. Here, natural gas is a quarter to a third the cost of propane,” the couple says. “We put in a geothermal HVAC system, and a chance meeting with a wind turbine installer led to a proposal to put in a turbine to offset that power use.”
At that time, New York State offered incentives to encourage the installation of distributed (or residential) wind turbines. Participants reported statistics to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) over five years to inform research.
The program has since been disbanded but, as a NYSERDA representative explains, “Distributed, or residential, wind turbines are connected at the distribution level of an electricity system, or in off-grid applications, to serve specific or local loads.”
Initially, the turbine supplied about 80 percent of the vineyard’s energy needs. According to Ross, wind accounts for about 40 percent of the farm meter today.
In 2014, Trudy and Brett Decker, also from western New York, installed a 10 kW Bergey turbine to supplement energy for their home. Brett, an excavating contractor, was subcontracting to a company installing turbines and had an opportunity to install one at a fraction of the cost.
“When it is running, it provides up to 75 percent of our energy costs, but only when it is on,” the couple explains. “There is no battery backup to store and use it later.”
The cumulative U.S. distributed wind capacity installed from 2003 through 2021 now stands at 1,075 megawatts (MW). That is generated from over 89,000 wind turbines across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam, according to Pacific Northwest National Labs, which issues annual reports on the status of the distributed wind market.
“Residential wind isn’t bustling because residential solar is so inexpensive, but there are still a lot of places where small wind turbines make sense,” says Remy Pangle, managing director, and education manager at James Madison University’s Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy.
Location, Location, Location
Not every locale is suited to wind power. According to Pangle, the coastal areas and the “wind belt,” which follows the United States’ Midwest “wheat belt,” have the greatest wind resources. For example, the Decker’s property is located on an escarpment not far from Lake Ontario. The “knob” is about 20 feet higher than other areas in the county and wind studies show the location catches a consistent easterly wind.
“Wind studies will tell you the average wind pattern based on your location,” Decker says.
Using this data is critical in deciding if a turbine can be beneficial on a specific property. Generally, residential wind turbines are in more rural areas because of the abundance of wind and the amount of space needed for installation.
In the winter, the Deckers pay the minimum $22.50 metering fee to the utility company, and the turbine produces enough to cover all energy costs. However, it is not sufficient in the summer to cover increased energy demands for air conditioning units, a pool and other needs. Access to net metering – when the excess energy created feeds into the grid and credit is earned – has increased as solar power has expanded but is still unavailable in every scenario.
“Every state is different,” Pangle points out. “It’s gotten better because of solar, but folks using wind turbines have had to go off-grid because net metering was unavailable in their area.”
Worth the Investment?
Residential wind turbines come in a wide range of sizes. For example, a local big box store sells a wind turbine with one-foot blades that produces about 400 watts of energy. According to Pangle, that creates about enough energy to charge an RV battery for a weekend of camping or power lightbulbs in a garage.
An average home that is energy efficient, without lights and electronics running around the clock, may not need more than a five or 10-kW turbine. However, a farm, mega-mansion or home that leaves the lights on all the time, is going to have far higher energy needs requiring a megawatt turbine.
“With solar or wind, you want to match your system to your electricity needs,” Pangle says. “It takes a lot of client input to create a profile based on your needs and goals.”
A residential, DIY system that produces 400 watts or less can average $1,000, according to Pangle. Even if you plan to buy a smaller do-it-yourself option, it’s advisable to consult an experienced individual to determine the best location.
“It can be inexpensive if you do all the work yourself,” she says. “These smaller systems do not have an inverter or battery, which is needed for larger turbines, [and are] two components that add to the expense. If you’re going to install a 20-kW turbine, you need to hire a contractor, and it costs somewhere in the $65,000 to $70,000 range.”
The tower style chosen to support the turbine increases the investment. There are three options: a monopole, a lattice tower (similar to cell towers), and a telephone guide pole secured to the ground with wire. There are pros and cons of each for cost and maintenance.
“Our investment in the turbine was only $2,500 because Brett worked for the company that installed it,” Trudy Decker says. “We probably wouldn’t have installed it, if he hadn’t been working for [them], because of the cost and [also] solar is so much further ahead right now.”
The residential wind industry took a hit when solar became so cheap, so there are not a lot of small wind installers around, according to Pangle.
“At the last Distributed Wind Energy Association event there was some positive conversation around distributed generation and building a more resilient grid. And, when people are thinking about things like micro grids, that distributed wind is going to play a role. I would like to hope that there’s going to be a growing need for folks that are installing small wind turbines. But, as of right now, I wouldn’t say it’s a booming industry.”
Yay or Nay From Neighbors
When the Ross’ neighbors learned of the turbine, there was significant resistance to the project. Most of the opposition came from a single neighbor, who misled people into thinking this would be a large-scale wind farm, rather than a farm-located turbine.
“We had no idea anyone was opposed until we showed up at the town for a special meeting that lasted three hours with the town facilitating the “shouting down” of any support in the room,” they say. “We have learned since [that] the town is very much against solar and wind. We had to sue the town to get the permit and never had to go to court as New York State farming laws supersede town laws in a farming district.”
Since then, other farms have installed similar turbines in the region with zero opposition from residents or town governments. Also, once the turbine was operational, people could see that it was small and quiet.
“Most of the opposing neighbors have come into the winery at some point and apologized for the misunderstanding,” the Rosses say.
“Never install a turbine that hasn’t been tested and certified,” Pangle cautions. “And hug your turbine every day. Turbines vibrate, and you can feel if something is wrong with the tower. It will shake differently and tell you.”
Katie Navarra is a non-fiction writer. Her byline has appeared in Popular Science, The Motley Fool, Education Dive, ChemMatters, Society of Human Resources Management, Western Horseman Magazine and Working Ranch, among others.
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