When most people think of wind energy production, they picture massive wind turbine farms spanning the horizon or coastline. But there are other, smaller, more local ways to take advantage of wind energy to produce electricity.
When wind energy is produced at the point of consumption, near the consumer, we call it distributed wind energy. Distributed, or small wind, energy can be generated at tens of millions of locations in the U.S. alone and offers a highly efficient way to meet the energy needs of businesses across the country.
Distributed Wind Energy – the Basics
Big wind farms and offshore wind energy production generate power far from the point where it will be used -- which means the energy needs to be transported. To carry this “big” wind, you need high-voltage transmission lines and other distribution equipment. Still, even the best transmission line technology still loses a significant portion of the energy transported along the way, making it less electrically efficient than small-scale wind energy.
So, how is distributed wind power distributed? Very differently.
With a small-scale wind power system, you don’t have to ship the energy far from where it is generated. The power is generated “behind the meter,” meaning on the customer’s side of the electric meter. The power is used on-site by businesses and institutions situated near these small-scale wind turbines -- it doesn’t need to be purchased and transported from an electricity provider.
Best of all, any power not used by the customer can be sold back to the local power company for a profit.
How Do You Get Distributed Wind?
Distributed wind is popular primarily in rural and commercial areas and doesn’t need much room to get the job done. Lots are usually at least 1 acre for a 250 kW turbine. A comparable solar installation would take almost 6 acres to achieve the same production capability.
Distributed wind energy systems offer clean, reliable electricity in a wide variety of settings:
- Remote areas
“Smaller” wind also has off‐grid applications:
- Remote homes, cabins, and facilities
- Village power
- Battery charging
- Electrical‐type water pumping
To get distributed wind, you first bring in a local wind installer to do a survey. If the proposed site is promising, the installer can help you choose the right turbine for your situation.
Next, you get a permit to build the turbine and a power purchase agreement (PPA) in place so that you can sell excess power to a power company in your area. With all the plans and paperwork in place, you can get the turbine installed and start taking advantage of renewable energy.
Small-Scale Wind Power Generation = Opportunity
There are 49 million potential distributed wind generation sites in the U.S. A potential site is a place that’s considered an economic value to the owner and will work from a scientific standpoint. These are places that can justify the installation of small-scale wind energy systems financially and where there’s enough wind to make the project worthwhile.
The total potential power generation of these 49 million potential sites is 8,000 gW, which actually exceeds the potential of offshore wind generation. Currently the offshore wind market gets all the attention, but what’s being overlooked by many is the fact that the generating capacity of smaller-scale wind energy is just as valuable.
Financial Benefits of Distributed Wind
Fully embracing the potential of the small-scale wind “farm” offers multiple advantages. (Disclaimer: “Distributed wind” and “wind farm” aren’t interchangeable.)
Installing a distributed wind system makes financial sense for investors and users. These systems lower the power bill for anyone using them, which quickly adds up over time.
A single household can install a small turbine to help offset their electricity bill. A vegetable farmer can use distributed wind to help refrigerate his cabbage year-round without triggering peak-use charges and upping his electric bill to $70,000 a year. Even municipalities and large organizations can install distributed-scale wind turbines to offset their energy costs.
Whatever the energy needs, if the site is promising from a scientific perspective, it’s probably possible to save significant money with distributed wind.
Depending on location, those installing local, small-scale wind power often receive tax credits to further mitigate the cost.
Centralized production of power can negatively impact the environment in a variety of ways. Even in large wind farms, the infrastructure required to transport energy to the user can negatively impact the environment.
Distributed wind energy lessens some of these environmental impacts by making power on a smaller scale locally and minimizing the need for transporting the energy elsewhere.
Changes in the Technology
Pitch control mechanisms can improve the efficiency and longevity of turbines. But up until recently, these controls didn’t get cheaper as the turbines shrunk. You’d have to pay nearly as much for a pitch system in a small turbine as you would for a huge one.
Fortunately, recent design advances have made it possible to get smaller pitch actuators for significantly less than they once cost. Distributed wind customers can now get the same benefits as the “big boys.”
Made in America
Along with the environmental, security, and price stability benefits that all clean energy solutions offer, distributed wind owns a particularly unique benefit: It’s made in America. Over 90% of the distributed-scale wind that was installed in the United States last year was manufactured in America. Providing added resource diversity, distributed wind is an important part of the U.S. wind market’s electrical potential.