What’s Up With Micro Wind Turbines? They’re Up! — CleanTechnica Interview

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The US wind industry experienced yet another spurt of growth last year, except for a speck of disappointing news lurking in the weeds. According to the stats compiled by the US Department of Energy, sales of small-scale wind turbines declined last year. Nevertheless, when you go farther down the scale to the micro size, the good news pops up again. The data indicate that interest in micro wind turbines remains relatively strong. So, what gives?

micro wind turbines
Wind turbines and distributed wind resources via US Department of Energy

The 2018 Distributed Wind Market Report

The US Department of Energy issued its 2018 Distributed Wind Market Report in August, and that is the source of both good news and bad for wind turbines of less than 100 kilowatts.

For those of you new to the topic, first some definitions. Wind turbines of any size can fall into the distributed category. Distributed wind refers to turbines that (a) power equipment on-site, (b) connect to a distribution network, or (c) support operations in nearby grids. That covers a lot of ground.

The smaller end of the scale, going by the Energy Department’s definition, includes only turbines from 1 to 100 kilowatts in size. That’s where the hurt took place. In 2018, these small wind installations totaled 1.5 megawatts nationwide, down from 1.7 megawatts in 2017.

The Energy Department cautions that there are some gaps in the 2018 data. Still, the agency noted  the downward trend and attributed it to “changing federal and state policy environments” (shocker!) in addition to competition from low-cost solar power.

Another factor to consider is the increasing demand for larger wind turbines for distributed usage. That could reflect a surge in interest among large commercial and industrial users, where facility managers are attracted by long term price stability and greater control over their energy profile.

The picture shifts when you separate out the very smallest, “micro” turbines (defined as less than 1 kilowatt) from the small category. Micro wind turbines come out looking pretty good, as the report explains:

“As overall annual small wind capacity deployment has decreased, the less than 1-kW turbine size segment is contributing an increasingly larger percentage of both the total number of turbines and capacity of small wind projects (99% and 47% in 2018, respectively).”

What’s So Hot About Micro Wind Turbines?

So, why is the micro end of the scale holding its own? Good question! For the answer, CleanTechnica turned to Alice Orrell of the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who co-authored the 2018 Distributed Wind Market Report.

Much of the demand for micro wind turbines is in the area of remote power, and Ms. Orrell explained (by email to CleanTechnica) that demand for remote power does not respond to market conditions in the way that other applications do.

“These less than 1-kW turbines (often packaged with solar PV panels) go to a variety of customers – off-grid cabins, oil & gas platforms, sailboats, fracking sites, and military sites,” she wrote. “If you need power for your remote site, you need it now – you probably won’t wait for an incentive to become available to make your decision.”

One especially interesting example of micro wind usage is for measuring wind resources in order to assess a site for larger wind projects. The turbines are part of a data collection package on a meteorological tower, as described by Orrell:

“The met tower measured the wind speeds for a year at the client’s site they were considering for a future wind project. The met tower’s beacon light had to be powered around the clock somehow in the remote location, so it was powered by a 160-W wind turbine (because we knew the site was windy!) that charged a battery.”

Orrell also provided this insight into the decline in sales for the small wind category of 1-to-100 kilowatts:

“Before making a purchase, these customers are more likely to consider the availability of incentives and favorable policies, the cost/benefit analysis of the initial high capital cost of a small wind turbine and the electricity retail rates they are currently paying and whether those rates are going to rise, and alternatives such as solar PV which has a lower initial capital cost and is easier to install.”

Small Wind Turbines: Down But Not Out

Fans of 1-to-100 kilowatt small wind turbines don’t seem to have much to cheer about currently, but the Distributed Wind Market Report does note two interesting items that could help breathe new life into the category.

One is the increased popularity of wind-solar hybrid systems. In a hybrid system, the low cost of solar can cushion higher costs for small wind. The result could be a cost-effective system for 24/7 renewable energy production that also reduces the need for energy storage.

Wind-solar hybrid power plants are already emerging as a competitive alternative to natural gas on the utility scale level, so there’s that.

The second point relates to the contrast between the small wind industry of years ago with that of today. Before the advent of industry-wide standards, small wind was a kind of “wild-west” environment  in terms of consumer protection, which put a damper on demand. Well, that was then.

More recently, the American Wind Energy Association and the Energy Department have developed a certification program with rigorous standards and practices. That provides critical support for buyer confidence, especially in applications where facility managers need to make a bottom-line case to company executives.

So far this year, three new small wind turbine models achieved certification: the Hi-VAWT Technology Corporation DS3000, the Bergey WindPowerExcel 15, and the Primus AIR 30/AIR X.

Of particular note is the Hi-VAWT DS3000. It is the first vertical axis turbine to gain certification by the ICC-Small Wind Certification Council and demonstrate conformance with AWEA standards.

Additional certifications in the vertical category could help stimulate more interest in the small wind category overall. They provide additional site selection options, including installations that serve aesthetic and branding purposes along with power generation.

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Image: Distributed wind resources via US Department of Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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