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Installing and Maintaining a Small Wind Electric System

July 2, 2012 - 8:22pm

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Installing and Maintaining a Small Wind Electric System

If you went through the planning steps to evaluate whether a small wind electric system will work at your location, you will already have a general idea about:

  • The amount of wind at your site
  • The zoning requirements and covenants in your area
  • The economics, payback, and incentives of installing a wind system at your site.

Now, it is time to look at the issues associated with installing the wind system:

  • Siting -- or finding the best location -- for your system
  • Estimating the system’s annual energy output and choosing the correct size turbine and tower
  • Deciding whether to connect the system to the electric grid or not.

Installation and Maintenance

The manufacturer of your wind system, or the dealer where you bought it, should be able to help you install your small wind electric system. You can install the system yourself -- but before attempting the project, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can I pour a proper cement foundation?
  • Do I have access to a lift or a way of erecting the tower safely?
  • Do I know the difference between alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) wiring?
  • Do I know enough about electricity to safely wire my turbine?
  • Do I know how to safely handle and install batteries?

If you answered no to any of the above questions, you should probably choose to have your system installed by a system integrator or installer. Contact the manufacturer for help, or contact your state energy office and local utility for a list of local system installers. You can also check the yellow pages for wind energy system service providers.

A credible installer may provide additional services such as permitting. Find out if the installer is a licensed electrician, and ask for references and check them. You may also want to check with the Better Business Bureau.

With proper installation and maintenance, a small wind electric system should last up to 20 years or longer. Annual maintenance can include:

  • Checking and tightening bolts and electrical connections as necessary
  • Checking machines for corrosion and the guy wires for proper tension
  • Checking for and replace any worn leading edge tape on the turbine blades, if appropriate
  • Replacing the turbine blades and/or bearings after 10 years if needed.

If you do not have the expertise to maintain the system, your installer may provide a service and maintenance program.

Siting a Small Electric Wind System

Your system manufacturer or dealer can also help you with finding the best location for your wind system. Some general considerations include:

  • Wind Resource Considerations -- If you live in complex terrain, take care in selecting the installation site. If you site your wind turbine on the top of or on the windy side of a hill, for example, you will have more access to prevailing winds than in a gully or on the leeward (sheltered) side of a hill on the same property. You can have varied wind resources within the same property. In addition to measuring or finding out about the annual wind speeds, you need to know about the prevailing directions of the wind at your site. In addition to geological formations, you need to consider existing obstacles, such as trees, houses, and sheds. You also need to plan for future obstructions, such as new buildings or trees that have not reached their full height. Your turbine needs to be sited upwind of any buildings and trees, and it needs to be 30 feet above anything within 300 feet.
  • System Considerations -- Be sure to leave enough room to raise and lower the tower for maintenance. If your tower is guyed, you must allow room for the guy wires. Whether the system is stand-alone or grid-connected, you also will need to take the length of the wire run between the turbine and the load (house, batteries, water pumps, etc.) into consideration. A substantial amount of electricity can be lost as a result of the wire resistance—the longer the wire run, the more electricity is lost. Using more or larger wire will also increase your installation cost. Your wire run losses are greater when you have direct current (DC) instead of alternating current (AC). If you have a long wire run, it is advisable to invert DC to AC.

Sizing Small Wind Turbines

Small wind turbines used in residential applications typically range in size from 400 watts to 20 kilowatts, depending on the amount of electricity you want to generate.

A typical home uses approximately 9,400 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year (about 780 kilowatt-hours per month). Depending on the average wind speed in the area, a wind turbine rated in the range of 5–15 kilowatts would be required to make a significant contribution to this demand. A 1.5-kilowatt wind turbine will meet the needs of a home requiring 300 kilowatt-hours per month in a location with a 14 mile-per-hour (6.26 meters-per-second) annual average wind speed.

To help you determine what size turbine you'll need, first establish an energy budget. Because energy efficiency is usually less expensive than energy production, reducing your home's electricity use will probably be more cost effective and will reduce the size of the wind turbine you need.

The height of a wind turbine's tower also affects how much electricity the turbine will generate. A manufacturer should help you determine the tower height you will need.

Estimating Annual Energy Output

An estimate of the annual energy output from a wind turbine (in kilowatt-hours per year) is the best way to determine whether it and the tower will produce enough electricity to meet your needs.

A wind turbine manufacturer can help you estimate the energy production you can expect. The manufacturer will use a calculation based on these factors:

  • Particular wind turbine power curve
  • Average annual wind speed at your site
  • Height of the tower that you plan to use
  • Frequency distribution of the wind -- an estimate of the number of hours that the wind will blow at each speed during an average year.

The manufacturer should also adjust this calculation for the elevation of your site.

To get a preliminary estimate of the performance of a particular wind turbine, you can use the following formula:

AEO= 0.01328 D2 V3

Where:

  • AEO = Annual energy output (kilowatt-hours/year)
  • D = Rotor diameter, feet
  • V = Annual average wind speed, miles-per hour (mph), at your site

Note: the difference between power and energy is that power (kilowatts) is the rate at which electricity is consumed, while energy (kilowatt-hours) is the quantity consumed.

Grid-Connected Small Wind Electric Systems

Small wind energy systems can be connected to the electricity distribution system. These are called grid-connected systems. A grid-connected wind turbine can reduce your consumption of utility-supplied electricity for lighting, appliances, and electric heat. If the turbine cannot deliver the amount of energy you need, the utility makes up the difference. When the wind system produces more electricity than your household requires, the excess is sent or sold to the utility.

With this type of grid connection, your wind turbine will operate only when the utility grid is available. During power outages, the wind turbine is required to shut down due to safety concerns.

Grid-connected systems can be practical if the following conditions exist:

  • You live in an area with average annual wind speed of at least 10 miles per hour (4.5 meters per second).
  • Utility-supplied electricity is expensive in your area (about 10–15 cents per kilowatt-hour).
  • The utility's requirements for connecting your system to its grid are not prohibitively expensive.

There are good incentives for the sale of excess electricity or for the purchase of wind turbines. Federal regulations (specifically, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978, or PURPA) require utilities to connect with and purchase power from small wind energy systems. However, you should contact your utility before connecting to its distribution lines to address any power quality and safety concerns.

Your utility can provide you with a list of requirements for connecting your system to the grid. For more information, see grid-connected home energy systems.

Wind Power in Stand-Alone Systems

Wind power can be used in off-grid systems, also called stand-alone systems, not connected to an electric distribution system or grid. In these applications, small wind electric systems can be used in combination with other components -- including a small solar electric system -- to create hybrid power systems. Hybrid power systems can provide reliable off-grid power for homes, farms, or even entire communities (a co-housing project, for example) that are far from the nearest utility lines.

An off-grid, hybrid electric system may be practical for you if the items below describe your situation:

  • You live in an area with average annual wind speed of at least 9 miles per hour (4.0 meters per second).
  • A grid connection is not available or can only be made through an expensive extension. The cost of running a power line to a remote site to connect with the utility grid can be prohibitive, ranging from $15,000 to more than $50,000 per mile, depending on terrain.
  • You would like to gain energy independence from the utility.
  • You would like to generate clean power.

For more information, see operating your system off the grid.

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