Now is the time for the US distributed wind industry to blossom and spread its tiny turbines across the land. Coal has collapsed in a steaming heap, the COVID-19 crisis has stomped all over the market for oil and gas, and the burning of the US west coast will most likely convince more people to pay more attention to the benefits of smaller wind turbines. Here to help do the convincing is the US Department of Energy, which apparently did not get the memo about saving all those coal jobs.
The Case For Distributed Wind & Tiny Wind Turbines
To be clear, the distributed wind sector is not confined to tiny turbines, or even small or mid-sized turbines. The defining factor is how the turbines are used. In the view of the Energy Department, distributed wind refers to turbines that are used for on-site electricity generation, for example at a farm, a medical center, or a school campus. Also included in the category are wind turbines that support a local distribution grid.
Although large-scale turbines of 8-10 megawatts and more could come under that definition, much of the distributed wind focus is on the small and mid-sized turbine categories. That includes everything under the 1-megawatt marker and all the way down into the micro scale range measured in a handful of kilowatts.
So, who needs a tiny wind turbine in their backyard? Though some urban and suburban locations fit the bill, a primary focus is on rural households as well as farmers and other rural businesses. The Energy Department has been making a big deal about distributed wind because it can assist economies in far flung areas where major new transmission infrastructure is expensive or impractical.
Beyond its application to rural economic growth, a strong US distributed wind industry would support extra resiliency and reliability for both local communities and the national grid, as an element in the Energy Department’s broader focus on grid modernization and distributed energy resources.
The agency is also promoting the US distributed wind industry as job-creating agent for both the domestic and export markets, helping to boost the nation’s wind manufacturing profile globally.
More & Better & Smaller Wind Turbines
Up through the last century, the small wind turbine category was hobbled by an unregulated, wild-west environment that left plenty of room for overstated promises, if not outright hucksterism. Now it’s the 21st century, and the small wind industry has matured with new certification and standardization measures supported by the American Wind Energy Association.
That leaves the challenge of bringing turbine costs down to a competitive level, and that’s where the Energy Department’s Competitiveness Improvement Project comes in. CIP is a cost-sharing program launched in 2013 under the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with the aim of accelerating deployment of small and mid-sized wind turbines.
In the most recent development on the turbine cost-cutting score, last month NREL selected seven US wind firms for funding through CIP. None of them have crossed the CleanTechnica radar before, which just goes to show how quickly the industry has been growing while we weren’t looking.
The selection also demonstrates that the small wind sector can generate electricity and jobs all over the US, and not just in the wind-rich midsection.
Two Vermont firms are included in the mix. The CIP funding will enable Star Wind (aka Star Wind Turbines) to take steps toward certifying its uniquely styled 45 kilowatt, “low-wind-speed-optimized, six-bladed horizontal-axis wind generator,” explains NREL.
United Wind LLC will polish off its prototype “Class III rotor, advanced system controls, and integrated storage for the XANT M 95-kW wind generator, allowing this system to provide expanded grid services and creating an autonomous 100-kW energy system” (note: as of this writing, unitedwind.com redirects to Ecocycle).
Pennsylvania also lays claim two of the chosen ones. Matric Limited (aka Matric Group) is working on the wind power inverter end of things, which is important because wind turbines produce electricity in direct current (DC) mode, and you need an inverter to switch onto alternating current (AC).
The project involves something called the Intergrid 25-kilowatt wind power inverter, which is heading toward commercial production under the wing of Matric. “This effort will provide a modular, small wind turbine inverter that can be applied across the sector,” explains NREL.
The other Keystone State firm, Windurance LLC, is also working on the Intergrid project. Its role will be to “verify design, manufacture test units, and conduct certification testing of a three-phase, 480-volt inverter and control system for wind generators in the 50-kW to 300-kW size class.”
Another northeastern firm, Pecos Wind Power (of Massachusetts, not Texas), received CIP funding to develop a prototype into a new 85-kilowatt wind turbine, with an eye on increasing efficiency and reducing costs.
Moving along to windier parts of the country, Arizona’s QED Wind Power is working on certification and a listing in Underwriters Laboratory for its 20-kilowatt horizontal-axis wind generator. The new funding infusion will help it get that done.
And finally, Carter Wind Turbines (aka Carter Wind Energy) of Texas will develop a new, larger rotor that will more than double the swept area for its existing 300-kilowatt platform, and work on a new variable-speed power and control system with energy storage.
Small Wind Power, Made In America
Stay tuned for more on these seven companies. Meanwhile, this is just part of the CIP fold. The seven firms represent CIP’s eighth funding cycle, bringing the total since 2103 to 36 subcontracts spread out among 20 companies.
Bergey popped up on the screen just last year, when its new Excel 15 turbine won certification. NREL is happy to take credit for shepherding the new turbine into being through CIP funding.
“This turbine increases power output by 110% while reducing the overall cost of energy by more than 50% compared to Bergey’s legacy Excel 10 turbine,” NREL enthused. “With the support of CIP, Bergey continues to develop products aimed at reducing installation costs and is working on technology to enable turbines to provide backup power services for rural consumers and disaster response.”
Bergey is also not shy about tooting its own horn at the expense of both fossil fuels and solar power.
“The Excel 15 lowers the payback period of a small wind turbine by more than 50%, allowing this made-in-America renewable energy system to compete with imported solar systems,” explains the company website. “It’s powerful enough to allow you to replace fuel oil or propane heating and to charge an electric car.”
The Revenge Of The Wind Turbines
No mention of US wind policy would be complete without acknowledging that the Commander-in-Chief is actually quite opposed to the whole notion of turbines that generate electricity from wind (three guesses why — and it’s not about the birds).
In practice, though, the US wind industry — big and small, onshore and offshore — has been building up a full head of steam all during the Trump* administration, despite some uncertainty over the current direction of White House policy. That’s because here in the US, presidents come and go at regular intervals (or at least, they’re supposed to). So, the wind power companies of today are setting up to create new green jobs and power the country with clean kilowatts for generations to come, regardless of who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Aside from promoting activity in the distributed wind/small wind turbine sector, the Energy Department is also ginning up interest in other untapped avenues for growth in the US wind industry, including floating wind turbines, taller turbine towers, and the exploitation of wind resources in the Gulf of Mexico.
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Photo (screenshot): Wind power courtesy of Bergey Windpower.