Wind electricity is an enticing technology, drawing attention to itself with every turn of the blade. But for the uneducated consumer, wind power can end up being the most disappointing of RE technologies. This is not because it’s a hopeless endeavor to capture the energy in the wind, but because it’s a difficult job. Unfortunately, the technology also seems to attract more backyard “inventors” and hucksters than other renewable technologies.
Before you are hired for a new job or are accepted as a new student, you need to pass interviews, tests, and other evaluations. Perhaps wind electricity consumers should put themselves through a similar grilling before taking on the job of wind-electric system owner. In this article, we’ll run you through some tests to see if you qualify.
One early step is to look at your physical site. Productive wind-electric systems take space. If you live in a city lot, an apartment, or even on a small suburban lot, installing a wind-electric system may be difficult or impossible. Even if you have the space, most urban settings have little, if any, wind resource.
Freestanding towers can have a very small footprint, and in fact can be installed on very small lots. Fixed guyed and tilt-up towers both need a more substantial footprint, for the guy wires and for tilting down. These are often not options on small lots.
Successful wind-electric systems need tall towers that put the wind generator in the smooth, strong wind, well above obstructions. This can be very difficult on small lots, and may also lead to objections by neighbors and others.
The hard reality is that in today’s cultural and legal climate, small wind systems are primarily successful as a rural technology. If you don’t have an acre or more of ground, you’ll have an uphill battle to permit and install a system that generates the electricity expected from it.
In addition to space and neighbor constraints, you’ll often face legal hurdles, especially in the city and suburbs. Objections to wind energy systems come with their own ignorance, fear, and misconceptions. Unfortunately, local officials are sometimes ill-informed and may give too much credence to fear-mongering or antiwind zealots.
It’s common to find local or state statutes that restrict tower height to 30 to 60 feet—heights that hamstring a system to poor performance. These sorts of limits need to be challenged in administrative offices and courtrooms. Better yet, do the necessary education and change the permitting language proactively to avoid battles later on. Bowing to ordinances that limit tower height only results in poorly performing systems, and sets a bad precedent.
Laws that require a distance between your tower and buildings or property lines are called “setbacks,” and they can set your project back—in dollars and productivity. These restrictions vary by jurisdiction; we wonder why utility poles and towers are allowed close to roads, homes, and schools, while similarly engineered wind generator towers typically are not. Tower failures are rare, and real-world results show that, in the unlikely event that a failure occurs, the tower tends to buckle, instead of falling to its full height. Correcting unreasonable setbacks will make your project more functional, and help the industry mature.
Local jurisdictions may suggest or even require that you get comments or consent from neighbors before you are granted a building permit for your wind-electric project. Such requirements rarely, if ever, are enacted for other building or construction projects, and wind systems should not be treated any differently. Community pressure can change ill-conceived regulations. Meanwhile, we suggest that you become friendly with your neighbors, share your renewable energy passion, and get them on your side before it becomes a legal issue.