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Environment | Energy

Small Wind Power Loses Steam In 2013

Martin Fleming decided to build a turbine next to his home instead of complain about the constant wind. He says he's glad it's there, generating power.

Martin Fleming decided to build a turbine next to his home instead of complain about the constant wind. He says he's glad it's there, generating power.

Courtesy of Martin Fleming


You may have seen small wind turbines spinning in your neighbor’s backyard or powering a local farm.

These mostly single turbines provide much less power than the sprawling wind farms you may see on ridgelines around the Northwest. But more and more have popped up in recent years.

Last year, I spoke with Martin Fleming, who built a small wind turbine in his backyard in Manson, Washington. He says on windy days his turbine can provide power for three homes.

“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.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, has for the second year released a report looking at the difference that small wind turbines might actually make.

Right now, small wind turbines, also known as distributed wind, can power about 120,000 American homes.

This year’s report found something a little different: there were fewer new small wind turbines in 2013 than in recent years, said Alice Orrell, the report author.

annual capacity

“2013 was a down year for wind all around, but one thing I found interesting was that the drop in very small and off-grid turbines dropped less than for other wind turbines, which tells me that if you need your own energy source (for a boat, cabin, or other remote location), you still just get it when you need it,” Orrell said.

Orrell said there is a strong correlation between tax incentives and how well the wind industry does in different states.

“Incentive programs vary widely with respect to the amount of funding they provide, the total number of projects they support, and the length of time they are available,” the report states.

For example, in 2012, small wind projects received more than $100 million from federal, state and utilities incentives.

In 2013, the same year small wind projects decreased, funding totaled $15.4 million.

Critics of wind energy, including oil industry lobbyists, have said it needs to be able to thrive without tax credits. Wind energy advocates say all other forms of energy get help from taxpayers.

cumulative capacity

To help make up for the drop in small wind installation, manufacturing and small wind exports picked up in 2013, Orrell said. U.S.-made wind turbine exports grew by 70 percent.

The report says exports went to Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Nigeria.

Another interesting tidbit the report found: more people are leasing wind turbines. While some solar leasing is available in the Northwest, wind leasing has happened in New York. (The state has good tax incentives and wind resources, and easy permitting regulations.)

A little closer to home, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation recently installed its own small wind turbine.

The turbine at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute will generate about 25 percent of the building’s electricity.

Jess Nowland, who helps manage the building, said the tribe had already worked to reduce its energy consumption by 70 percent. The conservation strategy saved the tribe $700,000, he said.

“The reality is that there are buildings everywhere that you can achieve this kind of savings on,” Nowland said.

— Courtney Flatt

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