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Seems like everything is more expensive these days, and one of the most worrying bills hitting your bank account is for home energy use. From gas to electricity, the cost of keeping our lives lit up, warm, and connected isn’t going to get lower any time soon, so it’s little wonder people are increasingly turning to renewable energy sources to bridge the budget gap (and, incidentally, make the world a little more sustainable).
The most obvious choice for your home is solar power, in part because there are numerous government programs offering tax breaks and a growing number of contractors offering installation. But not every roof is ideal for solar power, and not everyone likes the idea of having enormous panels bolted to their roof, making repairs more complex and leaks more likely. If that’s you, there’s another option: Wind power.
You’ve probably seen images of huge fields of wind turbines standing in the middle of nowhere, peacefully spinning and generating electricity. If you’re not so into solar power—or you want a rainy day option to keep the juice flowing when the sun’s not out—you can theoretically install a wind power system at your house. Maybe. Here’s an overview of what to consider.
How to know if wind power can work for you
Before you get too excited about this option for securing that sweet free electricity, consider whether you can actually install a turbine on your property. Some considerations include:
- Location. Wind turbines for home use don’t have to be the towering monsters you see out in the middle of nowhere, but they have serious space requirements. Generally speaking, your wind turbine will need to be at least 30 feet higher than any nearby structures (including your house) or geographical features within 300 feet of its location, because those structures will interfere with the wind. You’ll also need to choose a spot that’s conducive to wind, so you’ll need to survey your property to determine whether you have a good location for one at all—keeping in mind that smaller turbines can also be installed on your roof.
- Zoning and permits. The next thing to do is to check with your local government and/or your homeowners association (HOA) to see if you’re allowed to install a wind turbine, or if you need to go through a permit process. Turbines can be noisy, and people often have aesthetic complaints about them, so it pays to check.
- Wind speeds. It might seem obvious that the speed of the wind at your house is crucial, but it’s more complicated than you think. All wind turbines have what’s known as a “cut-in” speed—the minimum wind speed that will generate power through the turbine. Typically these speeds are between 6-9 miles per hour (mph), which isn’t exactly gale force, but if you don’t normally get consistent wind speeds of at least that much, you’re not going to get much return on your turbine investment. There’s also the turbine’s rated speed, which is where the turbine generates its maximum power—if your winds rarely get that high, your turbine will work, but you won’t get the maximum output. Wind turbines also have a “cut-out” speed to protect them during storms—once winds exceed their maximum tolerance, the turbine will shut down.
- Power needs. In order to figure out how much up-front investment your wind farm will need, you first need to know how much power you need from it. If your goal is to power your whole house, you need to know how much power that requires. On average, American homes use about 886 kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity a month, which is 886,000 watts. That’s a lot of watts, considering that many smaller home wind turbines are rated at 3,000 watts or less, meaning you might need to have several turbines installed to make a dent in your power needs.
- Birds. Yep, wind turbines kill a lot of birds every year (also, bats). Painting the blades black can help, but if you have a lot of avian life in your area, be prepared to spend some time picking up dead birds—and consider whether you want to be responsible for the carnage.
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Okay, you’ve done your research and you know you can install a wind turbine on your property. The other question to answer is: Should you?
Is installing a wind turbine worth it?
Whether or not a wind turbine installation is a smart move for you depends on what you need to get out of it, and whether you can achieve those goals. If you’ve got the ability and location to install a turbine (or several), consider that the average cost of a wind turbine setup that meets the power needs of a home is about $12,000 after government incentives, and the return on investment (ROI) for that setup can be as long as 15 years.
Even if you can handle the install, if winds rarely get above the average cut-in rate of 6-9 mph, you’ll never generate any power, and if wind speeds don’t rise to the turbines’ rated speed, you won’t get the maximum out of them, either, which will adjust your calculations on ROI and how much power you can rely on your turbines to generate. The U.S. government maintains a database of wind speeds around the country that might be helpful, but it’s not comprehensive. You can also purchase a wind meter and take measurements over a few weeks or months to get an idea about what kind of wind speeds you can expect.
The bottom line
So what’s the bottom line? A wind turbine (or several) can be a good idea if you’re looking to supplement your home’s electrical supply or want a good emergency backup power source, and if you’re going to be on the property for the foreseeable future so you can get a return on your investment. Wind turbines aren’t a great choice to rely on completely (unless you experience a lot of wind on your property) and if you’re planning to sell your property in the future, studies have shown turbines have exactly zero impact on your property values—so you won’t get more money for your home just because you’ve got turbines pumping it full of juice. That means the only ROI you’ll get is saving on energy costs over the long haul, and that’s a tricky calculation.
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