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Energy | Environment

Local Wind Power Keeps Energy Close To Home

Wind constantly whips around the central Washington hillside where Martin Fleming built his home. The soft-spoken mechanic used to complain about it.

One day he decided it would be better to make use of the gusts, instead of feeling annoyed. Fleming did some research and decided to buy a wind turbine.

“I built the tower on the ground, on its side, just like tinker toys or an erector set. Once the tower was complete, and then I put the turbine on the top and brought in a crane. It tilted it into place,” Fleming said.

building tower
Fleming installing the turbine near his home.

Fleming’s turbine has been producing power for 10 years. He connects to the Chelan County Public Utility District. On windy days he can generate enough power for roughly three homes.

He admits that might sound like peanuts compared to large wind farms you see along the Columbia River Gorge. But he believes it helps.

“If there’s a whole host of people, like me, who have small wind turbines in their backyard and a couple solar panels on their roof, then there’s micro-producers all over the place who all are adding their little drop in the bucket. Then that does make a difference,” Fleming said.

One main advantage to small wind turbines, researchers point out, is they can be more resilient. For example, it might have been easier for Fleming to fix his one turbine after a 2007 windstorm than it would be to fix an entire wind farm.

A recent study at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has found that small wind producers are popping up all over the U.S. The turbines power off grid homes, farms, schools and businesses.

installed capacity
Courtesy of PNNL

To be considered in the study, wind energy had to be used locally and not travel miles and miles over transmission lines.

Alice Orrell is an energy analyst with the lab. She carries a six-inch wind turbine with her to demonstrate this type of energy, called distributed power.

“It’s distributed because all the power gets used right here,” she said.

She has attached a small electrical circuit to the mini-turbine. It demonstrates the power of the turbine to generate energy in one place.

Orrell found many schools have installed wind turbines.

“I need a fan or wind. It just plays little music, or it lights up this little LED light,” Orrell said and borrowed a desktop fan her coworker uses to keep cool.

The turbine’s small blades began spinning as soon as the fan turned on. A toy-like version of Beethoven’s Für Elise chips from the circuit. A LED light blinks when Orrell flips a switch. The circuit uses all the power the tiny turbine generates.

The lab’s report was the first comprehensive analysis on distributed wind.

Orrell found that 68 percent of all wind turbines installed over the past nine years have been distributed wind projects.

wind capacity
Courtesy of PNNL.

Washington ranks 10th in the nation for distributed wind capacity, with more than 10 megawatts energy available. Texas far out ranks every other state, with about 180 megawatts.

“There are so many small wind turbines out there that you don’t even see,” she said. Those turbines are all considered distributed wind.

Orrell thinks the popularity of small wind projects will continue to grow.

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