The Reality of Wind Energy at Home

The sun is constantly bombarding the Earth with energy.  Even from 93,000,000 million miles away, we acutely feel its dense radiation bringing warmth and life to our planet.  That energy is the mother source of all the permutations and manifestations of energy we see on Earth.  Plants use the sun’s energy to grow, then transfer their energy to animals.  When plants and animals die the energy contained in their physical bodies is released by fire or decomposition in the form of heat.  There is sun energy stored deep in the Earth’s molten core, released through volcanos, hot springs, and geysers.  The sun’s warmth creates kinetic energy in the movement of our massive oceans.  That matter movement transports warmth all around the planet, from east to west, north to south.  Earth’s atmosphere attains kinetic energy as well, matching the movement of the watery currents.  The air is constantly shifting across the globe, spreading entropy from continent to continent in the form of wind. 

As humanity continuously develops our ability to live on this planet, we have learned to harness the energy available on our planet through many means.  We unleash the sun’s energy stored in the organic matter transformed to oil and coal within Earth’s crust.  We create electricity from the endless undulation of ocean waves, directly from the sunlight itself, and from the ceaseless wind that roams the surface, across ocean, plains, and tundra. Zooming in our focus specifically to Albuquerque, we have an abundance of energy.  Most obviously, the sunlight we feel here is intense and persistent, soaking into the city and keeping us nice and warm.  We also have a significant amount of wind.  Anyone who has lived here across the course of our four seasons knows that wind is especially strong in the spring.  We even know of some areas like the Sandia Crest where the wind blows hard, all year round. 

During our most recent windy season, I distinctly felt the energy of the air movement all around me, everywhere I went in the city, bending cottonwoods, breaking elms branches, and funneling dirt and pollen statewide into our streets and homes.  During this time I hiked the Sandia Crest and was reminding the wind in the city was nothing compared to the incessant boom roar of the crest wind. 

While standing out over the edge of the Tree Springs tail crest overlook, with the intense, cool breeze steadily pushing against my weight, I found myself highly aware of the wind resource we have here.  I wondered small rooftop wind turbines or little windmill sized generation systems are not everywhere around town.  The more I thought about it, I realized I had never seen any small scale wind turbines in Albuquerque, in New Mexico, or anywhere I have every been and I decided it would such a cool renewable application to look more into.

While we do not always have wind here in Albuquerque, I figure we have a strong enough wind, often enough to justify at least some residential wind turbines in prime locations, to better offset our non-renewable energy reliance.  However, after doing some research online, I learned the most practical modern applications of wind turbines for residential power is not in the middle of a sprawling city, but rather is in rural and/or remote locations.  In the city, physical obstacles like trees and buildings are too abundant, preventing wind from sustaining high and steady speeds.  But out in our mesas and farming regions, there are significantly less obstacles, allowing for more consistent, faster wind speeds and therefore a greater amount of energy to harness.  I learned 30 feet over the top of nearby obstacles is where the main, unimpeded body of air movement can be found. 

In order to get a wind turbine into the air stream, towers have become a common part of most installations.  However, in the densely packed city, where we commonly see 50 foot tall ponderosas and equally large mulberry trees, not to mention tall building and billboards, building the 80-foot-tall towers needed becomes a complicated and expensive endeavor.  If built, they are also noisy and intrusive to the skyline, blocking our beautiful views of the mountains.  On the other hand, in the remote parts of the state, the complications and expenses are reduced.  Zoning permits for building towers are significantly more lenient and compared to the cost of tying a new home into the nearest electrical grid, the cost of building independent wind power systems is often less expensive. 

Even though rural areas are the prime candidates right now for these types of small wind generating systems, there still reasons for looking at urban applications.  Approximately 7% of generated electrical energy is lost when electricity is transmitted through transformers, booster and transfer stations, thousands of feet of wire, etc. to point-of-use locations like homes and businesses.  If we can shift or electrical generation to the point-of-use locations, there are certain losses that can be avoided by only traveling 20 feet to your circuit, instead of 20,000 feet.

Regardless of the ethereal concepts of urban versus rural areas, there are actually metrics that can be used to look at the difference between one location to another, certain cut off points that determine if your specific property is a good candidate for a wind powered system or not.  The Wind Energy Foundation recommends the following bare minimum conditions be met before considering a small wind turbine generating system.  In order to be worth consideration, your location needs to have: 1) an average of 10 mph (4.5 m/s) per year, 2) a high cost for utility provided power (10-15 cents per kWh), 3) low fees for tying your renewable generation into the grid, and 4) good incentives from your utility for generating power back to the grid.  Going over each recommendation one by one for Albuquerque at large: 1) the National Renewable Energy Lab’s average yearly wind speed map for New Mexico shows Albuquerque gets about 4.5 m/s average wind and a second source, the Windfinder app, shows data for Albuquerque from 2010 through 2018 with an average windspeed of 9 mph putting our city at the minimum value recommended; 2) our city’s electrical rates from PNM average about 12 cents per kWh which falls right within the recommended range for high utility cost; 3) the local cost for renewable tie-in is about $1,000 and often can be wrapped into the overall cost of installation for convenience o the consumer, and 4) PNM offers a cash value rate for generating electricity and putting it back on the grid,  but it is not very high, at about 3 cents for kWh right now and it is decreasing as more and more renewable systems are tied into the grid.  Then, after looking at your specific location in Albuquerque more closely, if you determine it is a good candidate for a wind installation, you can apply for a 30% rebate from the federal government to help offset the cost.  That rebate can be applied to the overall cost of material and installation and is still valid through the end of 2019, but then reduces to 26% after that until 2021.  There are other factors besides these four to consider when looking into a system like this, such as the actual cost of installation before rebates.  Less than 1% of currently installed wind turbine systems are in urban environments, so most statistics are based on rural and remote setups, and while they still generally apply there will be some difference between the two areas.  A typical rural home installation costs approximately $30,000 total, but can range from $10,000 to $70,000.  This cost incorporates tower, battery pack, and inverter installation.  On the bright side, there are some ways to reduce this cost.  While towers are responsible for a great portion of the overall expense, they are not always necessary.  In some areas with few obstacles, roof mounted wind turbines can produce enough power to meet the demand.  If a rooftop installation is not possible, some companies have started testing and manufacturing inflatable, helium elevated wind turbines.  They are significantly less expensive than tower installations and can easily be moved to different locations.  The battery and inverter installation is also a big part of the overall expense, but they can be designed to be a one-time cost.  If they are intentionally sized for future capacity, they can handle additional renewable power from extra wind turbines or solar panels, making the cost of a full size functioning system less expensive for each subsequent installation. 

Another factor to be considered is the reliability of wind generating equipment.  Given small wind turbines are only recently coming into high demand, the market has historically allowed for less regulation and products that have been known to fail quickly.  To appease this concern, there is now an organization called the Small Wind Certification Council that certifies wind turbines based on reliability, quality of manufacturing, and value of product testing. 

After system installation is complete, a new factor to considered is maintenance.  There are not many certified technicians right now, but as more systems are installed, that number will increase. 

Also, wind powered generating systems can balance out some of the downsides to solar powered systems.  Neither system produces electricity all the time, but they each tend to produce the most energy at different times.  While solar production might drop off in the winter, wind production tends to pick up.  During times when neither system is generating (like on a still night), grid tie-in or preferably a battery system can provide your buildings power needs. 

For those concerned with the noise generated by wind turbines, scientists and engineers are working on different systems that are as less noisy as they are more efficient.  There is a new design shaped like a snail’s or nautilus’ shell and it has proven to be very efficient, quiet, and quite frankly beautiful.  More options will continue to present themselves as the scientific and engineering communities continue to research and test new designs.

While wind powered generation systems might not seem viable or practical in most urban environments, there are many locations that do not yet have wind generation that could greatly benefit from it.  Local areas that have constant wind, like the Sandia Crest, could greatly benefit from wind generation.  Facilities on the crest like the High Finance restaurant, Sandia Ski resort, and radio tower cluster all require electricity and could benefit from the great power of the wind.  A study produced by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) shows that New Mexico also has great potential for remote wind generating facilities, if built in certain parts of the state (see image below).  Projects like the Sun Zia above-ground power line are working hard to extend power grids into those highly windy locations and facilitate new wind generation facilities, bringing jobs and money to New Mexico and increasing our potential to reduce reliance on fuel burned power.  At the end of the day, (no pun intended) while solar is the most cost effective renewable resource available right now, wind has potential to work along side solar and continue to transition our communities to a renewable, clean future.  For anyone interested in looking into the viability of small wind turbine installations, please feel free to contact me here at Vibrantcy; I would be happy to work with you!

-Trevor Keegan