Local Wind Power Keeps Energy Close To Home

Aug 15, 2013

You’ve probably seen large wind farms spinning on ridgelines across the Northwest. A new study has found a growing trend throughout the Northwest: small wind turbines. These are mostly single turbines in people’s backyards, on farms, or supplementing power for businesses.

Martin Fleming
Credit Courtney Flatt

Wind constantly whips around the central Washington hillside where Martin Fleming built his home. And so one day Fleming decided he would stop complaining about the wind. He thought a it’d be better to simply to make use of the gusts, instead of feeling annoyed. The soft-spoken mechanic did some research and decided to buy a wind turbine.

Fleming: “I built the tower on the ground, on its side, just like tinker toys or an erector set. Once the tower was complete, and then I put the turbine on the top and brought in a crane. It tilted it into place.”

Fleming’s turbine has been producing power for 10 years. He connects to the Chelan County Public Utility District. On windy days he can generate enough power for roughly three homes. He admits that might sound like peanuts compared to large wind farms you see along the Columbia River Gorge. But, he says:

Fleming: “If there’s a whole host of people, like me, who have small wind turbines in their backyard and a couple solar panels on their roof, then there’s micro-producers all over the place who all are adding their little drop in the bucket. Then that does make a difference.”

A recent study at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has found that small wind producers are popping up all over the U.S. … In people’s backyards, powering off grid homes, on farms, at schools and businesses. To be considered in the study wind energy had to be used locally and not travel miles and miles over transmission lines. Alice Orrell is an energy analyst with the lab. She carries a six-inch wind turbine with her to demonstrate this type of energy, called distributed power.

Orrell: “And it’s distributed because all the power gets used right here.”

She has attached a small electrical circuit to the turbine. It demonstrates the power of the turbine to generate energy.

Orrell: “I need a fan or wind. It just plays little music, or it lights up this little LED light.”

Cue the desktop fan her coworker uses to keep cool. The circuit uses all the power the tiny turbine generates. One main advantage to small wind turbines, researchers point out, is they can be more resilient. For example, it might have been easier for Martin Fleming to fix his one turbine after a 2007 windstorm than it would be to fix an entire wind farm. The lab’s report was the first comprehensive analysis on distributed wind. Orrell found that 68 percent of all wind turbines installed over the past nine years have been distributed wind projects.

Orrell: “Because there are so many small wind turbines out there that you don’t even see that are considered distributed wind.”

Orrell says she thinks people will continue to install small wind projects. And Martin Fleming says he’s noticed more distributed energy projects come online in the last 10 years, helping to diversify energy in the Northwest.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio