Small wind turbines aim for your backyard

It looks like an abstract sculpture or

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metallic lawn art, and its promoters say that installing several can

turn an ordinary backyard into a wind garden.

Green energy

advocates in this state say the Windspire, a power turbine that spins

in an upright position in a confined space, could represent a major

breakthrough for wind energy. Instead of using towers 100 feet tall or

higher for conventional windmills, the Windspire is just 30 feet tall.

Wind

energy has long been a nonstarter in this state because the best wind

speeds are found in ecologically sensitive areas: Appalachian ridge

tops and pristine coastlines. Today in Raleigh, a Senate committee of

the General Assembly is scheduled to debate a proposal to ban

commercial wind power development in the mountains.

The state’s midsection isn’t

windy enough to justify harnessing wind on a commercial scale. But for

those who just want to supplement their power supply, one potential

solution is the Windspire, with its comparatively low price tag and a

design that works on office rooftops and in suburban open spaces.

The

mechanism can be seen on the N.C. State University campus, where one of

three Windspires in the state converts wafting Carolina breezes into

electrons. Executives with Blue Sun Renewable Energy in Washington,

N.C., the turbine’s mid-Atlantic distributors, say several more

Windspires could be installed in the state in the coming months.

“You

have to look at this as one of the first entries into the renewable

energy market that’s completely affordable for ordinary people,” said

Jeremy Peang-Meth, a Blue Sun partner.

A Windspire unit costs

$6,500. Installation can add another $4,000 and requires building a

cement foundation for the 624-pound apparatus. In North Carolina,

however, the cost of the unit is marked down by more than half if the

buyer takes advantage of federal and state tax incentives for green

energy.

There are other small wind turbines on the market, but

the Windspire has enjoyed a promotional boost since being featured on

episodes of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “20/20” in

recent months. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in the Outer Banks

and Lem’s Auto Sales and Motor Sports in Shelby, west of Charlotte, are

both considering installing one. Windspire units already are generating

power at a sustainable community under development by Blue Sun near

Edenton and at a private home in Jamesville, east of Rocky Mount.

But

questions remain about its long-term prospects. The National Renewable

Energy Laboratory in Colorado stopped a test of a Windspire last year

after the turbine broke apart when welded areas failed.

Mariah

Power in Nevada, the company behind the Windspire, said it has fixed

all the defects in the prototype that was tested by NREL and the

Windspire hasn’t experienced problems since. According to Blue Sun,

more than 200 units are in use around the country, including the U.S.

Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., and, the Marin County Convention

Center in California.

Brian Miles, a wind energy extension

specialist at the N.C. State’s Solar Center, said that pending further

tests, the Windspire is “not quite ready for prime time” but

nevertheless looks promising.

“The big thing going for this one,

quite honestly, is they’ve been diligent about doing third-party

verification,” Miles said. “A lot of these products make outlandish

claims, or even normal claims, that are totally unverified.”

A bite out of your bill

According

to Mariah Power, the 1.2-kilowatt Windspire can cut household energy

use by 25 percent in an area where wind speeds average 12 mph. The

average wind speed in Raleigh is about 9 mph, which means that the

Windspire would likely provide between 5 percent and 10 percent of a

typical household’s energy in this area, Miles said. But the results

will depend on wind factors, which can vary across the state, and even

from one end of a county to another.

The Windspire’s energy potential in Raleigh is about to be put to a test.

NCSU has had its unit since April and will begin measuring power output soon.

And

officials at the planned Centennial Science Center at NCSU expect to

install four Windspire units for testing on the roof of the building

when construction is completed next year. Ewan Pritchard, program

director at the university’s Advanced Transportation Energy Center, is

reviewing the Windspire for the building and says that so far it looks

like the most promising small-scale wind turbine, especially for areas

like Raleigh that have poor wind resources.

The other selling

point of the Windspire is that it’s virtually noiseless. George Bates

had two installed in his Chesapeake, Va., home last month, and he says

they are inaudible. “It’s just an incredible piece of equipment,” Bates

said.

Jeff Cooper had a Windspire installed this month at his home in Jamesville.

“If it does away with even one light bill a year, that’s great,” Cooper said.

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