When the Payoff Seems Too Good to Be True
By MICK SAGRILLO
In August, Consumer Reports (CR) published a commentary on their test of a small wind turbine (see bit.ly/Uv7B53). The manufacturer touted the turbine as cutting-edge technology, superior in performance to traditional turbines on the market. In addition, the manufacturer claimed, the turbine could be mounted on a roof, drastically cutting installation cost and thereby significantly improving economics. Company information indicated that the turbine would generate 1,155 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, resulting in a 20-year payback on the $11,000 installed cost of the system.
CR installed this wind turbine as specified by the manufacturer, even consulting with company representatives several times.
After 15 months, the turbine generated less than 4 kWh, or, as CR put it, “…enough only to power a 12,000 btu window air conditioner for one afternoon.”
The manufacturer verified that the turbine was indeed installed correctly. CR concluded that “…it would take several millennia for the product to pay for itself in savings — not the 56 years it would take even with the 1,155 kWh quote we received.”
What Went Wrong?
So, why the dismal performance?
On the website, a reader commented, “It may sound obvious, but wind turbines need wind to generate electricity.” Put another way, wind is the fuel for a wind turbine. If you have no fuel then, as the song says, “you ain’t goin’ nowhere.” All too often, buyers are glassy-eyed over the glitzy hardware but neglect to find out if they even have any usable wind resource at their site.
In CR’s case, the salesperson estimated the wind speed and the turbine output. It should be obvious that salespeople have a vested interest, and that an independent evaluation of both the wind speed and turbine output might be in order. Such an evaluation would likely have resulted in very different estimates of both the wind resource and turbine performance.
CR did this as a test, but CR is not your average consumer. The average consumer buys a product, hopefully installs and operates it as specified by the manufacturer, and is either satisfied with the results or badmouths the technology rather than point a finger at their own short-comings as a savvy consumer. Mark Mayhew of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority commented, “Equipment improperly installed or used has no value,” and “Uninformed decisions lead to unachieved expectations.”
Or Did Anything “Go Wrong”?
Not really. CR did readers a favor by using this experiment as an example of how not to buy a small wind turbine. CR did not complete a list of steps one should take when deciding which, if any, wind turbine makes a good purchase. If you read between the lines, however, CR supplied us with a number of lessons:
1. Hire a wind-site assessor, or at least someone not involved in your particular sale but who understands small wind technology, to evaluate the wind resource at your site. It takes training and experience to do this with reasonable accuracy, so hire a pro, and be ready to pay the appropriate fee. Better to spend several hundred dollars on a site assessment than tens of thousands to find out that your dream machine will only power a window air conditioner for an afternoon after years of operation.
2. While the small wind industry does not have its own CR, we do have the Small Wind Certification Council (SWCC). Check smallwindcertification.org/certified-turbines to see if your turbine-of-interest is certified to national or international standards. While there is indeed lots of junk and hype out there, there are also bona fide wind turbines manufactured by bona fide companies that stand behind their products. The SWCC will help you separate the wheat from the gravel.
3. Also check with the Interstate Turbine Advisory Council to see if a turbine is recommended for purchase by member-state public-benefits programs (bit.ly/RBYumV). If no state renewable energy program will fund your dream machine, there’s probably a good reason.
4. Talk to at least one owner of the turbine you are interested in, for a realistic view of the technology and the company. Better yet, find an installation and visit it, quizzing the owners about their experience. The more owners you talk to, the better. And make sure that their turbines have been flying for a year or two. A few months of data is infant mortality when you are purchasing a product you are going to depend on for at least 20 years. Even more important than performance is the tech support — you’ll eventually need it — and warranty. Oh, and make sure the “owners” you contact are not just shills for the company.
Mike Bergey of Bergey Wind Power and president of the Distributed Wind Energy Association summed things up: “Tens of thousands of small wind turbines are working effectively and saving up to hundreds of dollars a month at homes all across America.” You can be one of those owners, but you need to do more than take the bait hook, line and sinker.
Mick Sagrillo teaches and consults about wind power, and has powered his home with wind power since 1982.