Intelligent Energy

The rise of small wind power

Posting in Energy

Utility-scale wind farms that contain hundreds of towering turbines might be more visible, but their Lilliputian brethren are gaining market ground.

Wind farms that contain hundreds of towering turbines spread out over vast tracts of land certainly are the most visible sector of the industry. But its Lilliputian brethren -- those small single turbines used at homes, businesses and institutions -- are playing an increasingly important role, especially for the broader renewable distributed energy generation market.

Pike Research recently forecast the global market for small wind systems will more than double between 2010 and 2015, rising from $255 million to $634 million during that time thanks largely to government incentives and increased awareness about this alternative electrical power source.

The cleantech research firm said small wind system installed capacity will nearly triple to 152 megawatts in that same time period; and the average installed prices will decline to about $4,150 per kilowatt. The average installed price of small wind turbines in the United States is $5,430 per kilowatt, the New York Times reported in reference to a soon-to-be released American Wind Energy Association report.

The future of distributed generation

Those figures are tiny compared to the installed capacity of the utility-scale wind farms. In the U.S. alone, utility-scale wind power capacity surpassed 42,000 megawatts through the second quarter of 2011, according to the AWEA.

But the impact of small turbines reads differently within the fledgling world of renewable distributed energy generation (RDEG). Traditionally, large wind or solar farms sell their electricity to utilities, which then send it over transmission lines to power homes, commercial entities and businesses.

Small wind turbines -- and other RDEG technologies like residential solar panels -- contradict this traditional one-way power supply, Pike Research said. The small turbines can be used to generate power to buildings off the grid. They also can offset high electricity prices to homes and commercial structures that are connected to the grid.

Pike Research expects  renewable distributed energy generation to gain traction, especially in places with China and India that have growing economies with large populations without access to electricity.

Small wind turbines are more efficient than solar photovoltaic systems and the payback period is five to 10 years in a region with adequate wind resources, according to senior analyst Peter Asmus. Still, small wind turbines aren't popping up on every block. Instead, they're concentrated to areas that have with adequate wind resources, high electricity prices and some kind of financial incentive.

Photo: Flickr user tswind

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure