Putting Wind In The Sails Of Small Turbine Options – for Aug. 2, 2010

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Many landowners in Western Canada are considering wind energy, and there are many potential advantages for reduced energy costs or even income from selling to the power grid.

However, Kelly Lund, an engineer and energy specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD), says potential investors should do their homework first.

“It’s a case of ‘look before you leap.’ There is a lot to like about producing wind energy on-farm, and there is a lot of excitement. However like many areas of emerging technology, the early stages of adoption come with more hurdles. You want to know clearly what you’re getting into and what you’re investing in before you take that step.”

Modern aerodynamics and engineering have improved small wind turbines to the point where they can provide reliable, cost-effective, pollution-free energy. But it’s essential to evaluate the cost and the estimated payback period. Generally, the larger the system, the lower the investment cost per kilowatt. Average total installed cost per kilowatt typically ranges from $3,000 to $4,000 for small-scale farm installations, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association.

Lund says return on investment periods of 12 to 25 years are fairly common. But it’s not a resource for everyone – wind availability is highly variable across the Prairies. Producers need to do their homework to see if it’s truly a viable option

“A wind-resource assessment is critical before investing in a wind power project,” says Lund. “For small projects, the expense of resource monitoring can almost be as much as the cost of equipment,” she says. “Consulting published data can be a good first step. You wouldn’t want to base your decision on it completely, but it can give you a rough idea of whether the project is worthy of further investigation.”

Take advantage of resources

In Alberta, two good starting points are the Alberta Energy website,ca, and the www.ARD energy.website, alberta. agric.gov.ab.ca. Search “www.wind

energy” to access a variety of information resources, including notices of workshops.

Lund says producers at two recent workshops were keen on wind energy. Alberta’s micro-generation regulation generated much of the interest. Established in 2009, this regulation allows electricity customers to generate their own electricity, receive credit for any power they don’t use and send to the electricity grid.

“Because the approach to micro-generation is at an early stage, there are different opinions around it. Some feel there should be stronger incentives, and that may be the case in the future. It was clear that micro-generation is a work in progress, but it is an important first step and has clear benefits.”

Know what you’re purchasing

A key hurdle that is not yet well known is the lack of a certification process for small wind turbine technology.

“Historically and even today if you shop for a wind turbine, you can look at the manufacturer’s claims as to what kind of power it will produce, but you have no independent verification of that claim,” says Lund.

It’s a big issue, she says. A study covering several northern states in the U. S. asked small wind turbine operators to assess actual performance of their turbines compared to the manufacturer’s estimates. “In over 50 per cent of cases they didn’t get the production they had estimated. In some cases it was much less.”

Two U. S. organizations, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the Small Wind Certification Council (SWCC) are working to develop a common North American standard for small-turbine performance.

“This is an important advancement, however it will take time for it to be implemented at the retail level,” says Lund.

Consider waiting for new standards to kick in

SWCC began to accept certification applications in February 2010. Three applicants are in the process and are expected to complete it by early fall. Another handful of applications has been accepted to begin the process this summer.

“The bottom line is if producers want the added security of purchasing a certified product, they will need to wait a bit to have that option,” Lund says. “By 2011, they should have a good selection of choices.”

This issue affects small wind turbines only. Large commercial- scale wind turbines already have a standard and are third-party tested.

Another reason producers may wish to wait is that performance certification is likely to become required in order to take advantage of incentive programs, says Lund. “The feeling is any jurisdiction offering rebates or premiums coming from small wind energy will need to be certified.

Buyer beware

In the meantime, a “buyer beware” element remains, says Lund. In one case an overseas manufacturer selling wind turbines didn’t have basic electrical approval. It’s illegal to operate a wind turbine without it. Once purchased, the onus is on the buyer to have it certified independently, which can add significant cost with no guarantee the turbine will pass inspection. A turbine that doesn’t get standard electrical approval is a complete loss unless the purchaser can recoup some investment through legal options against the manufacturer.

“If the purchasing price seems low, that’s one red flag,” says Lund. “In the vast majority of cases there shouldn’t be a problem. But producers really need to ask questions and get proof to make sure there are no issues with what they are purchasing.”

Stay tuned

Lund says there is a strong emerging role for independent studies in specific regions to give producers better information. In Alberta, one ARD effort in the planning stages is a small wind turbine demonstration project.

“There are a lot of questions around small wind turbines that are region specific and haven’t really been decided one way or another in many jurisdictions,” says Lund. “We know it’s one of the alternative energy options that is the closest to giving payback or making money for producers, but the time frames for payback and the practical challenges that exist are different in every situation.”

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Awind-resourceassessment iscriticalbeforeinvesting inawindpowerproject.For smallprojects,theexpense ofresourcemonitoringcan almostbeasmuchasthecost ofequipment.”

KELLY LUND

ARD

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