Big Dreams For Small Wind Turbines As huge wind farms get up and running to generate electricity on mountaintops and in fields, another market for wind energy is also emerging, known as "small wind." These turbines provide clean power to single homes and businesses, but are they economical?
NPR logo

Big Dreams For Small Wind Turbines

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Big Dreams For Small Wind Turbines

Big Dreams For Small Wind Turbines

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In this part of the program: big dreams for small wind. Think about wind power; you might imagine a vast wind farm of gigantic turbines spinning on a ridge line - big wind. But another part of the wind industry is thinking small, as in turbines that are the right size to power a home or a business.

One of the hottest ideas that's blowing around: Put them in cities on top of buildings. Forget the grid, put them right at the point of use. The notion of harnessing the wind is elemental and romantic, the stuff of poems and song.

(Soundbite of song, "Mariah")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) They call the wind Mariah.

BLOCK: The Reno company Mariah Power takes its name from that song. They make a turbine - or turbine - called the Windspire. You can see one right in the heart of Washington, D.C., at the foot of Capitol Hill, a 30-foot-tall structure in front of the U.S. Botanic Garden. It was Ray Mims' idea to put it there for an exhibit on sustainability.

Mr. RAY MIMS (Director of Horticulture, U.S. Botanic Garden): It's a vertical axis wind turbine. Most people think it's kinetic sculpture because it does not look like a typical wind turbine or a windmill.

BLOCK: It does not. It does not have those propeller blades; it's tall; it's white. It just looks like a tube with a frame around it.

Mr. MIMS: A lot of people like that because aesthetically, it's - some people think less jarring, so it works a little bit better in urban areas. It has been used on the roofs of buildings as well.

BLOCK: There are actually two turbines at the Botanic Garden: the Windspire, and a Skystream, made by Southwest Windpower. That one looks like a big fan on top of a very long pole. The turbines are striking, framed on this particular morning by a cobalt-blue August sky and the Capitol Dome. But when we visit, they're not turning at all.

Mr. MIMS: We just don't have any wind this morning, so - but unfortunately, you picked a non-windy morning.

BLOCK: That's the problem with a wind turbine, isn't it?

Mr. MIMS: Well, you know, alternative energy, you know, for small wind, you need 12 miles an hour sustained wind, on average, to really be productive. I think about 15 million households in the U.S. could have wind, and it'd pay for itself.

BLOCK: Where there's enough wind to make enough -

Mr. MIMS: Where there is enough wind. Correct. You'd never put in wind turbines in this location for an economic reason.

BLOCK: Down at the bottom of a hill.

Mr. MIMS: Down at the bottom of a hill.

BLOCK: Did they laugh at you when they came to install them?

Mr. MIMS: Well, they all - people thought we were crazy. But, you know, we explained what we're doing. This is about education.

BLOCK: Ray Mims says the turbines turn about 75 percent of the time. But he says they're only offsetting a tiny portion, less than 1 percent, of the Botanic Garden's energy use. So if putting turbines on the ground at the bottom of a hill is less than ideal, what about putting them up higher - say, on top of a building?

(Soundbite of song, "Mariah")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Mariah.

BLOCK: That's the urban, small-wind vision of Mariah Power's CEO Mike Hess.

Mr. MIKE HESS (CEO, Mariah Power): I want to make the product ubiquitous, so we see it all over. It can on top of skyscrapers. It can be right on your lamppost and driving the lights that are in the street. Put them in any number of places, and they become like the light pole or like the telephone pole or the power pole. We're just not going to see them anymore. That's the customer I'm going after, where we're going to put electricity where they use it, rather than way out in the country where we can make it easily.

BLOCK: That's beginning to happen. Hess says he's selling 20 turbines to Adobe, the software company in San Jose, California, to put on a roof. In Portland, Oregon, this month, a set of four Skystream turbines went up on top of a new office tower. And you can see an array of five kinds of turbines up on the roof of Boston's Museum of Science.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mr. DAVID RABKIN (Director, Current Science and Technology, Boston Museum of Science): This project started with people like me standing on the roof of the museum and basically saying: Dang, it's windy up here. We ought to be able to get a lot of free power.

BLOCK: That's David Rabkin, the museum's director for current science and technology, standing up on the roof. He says they studied wind patterns for a year before they set up this rooftop wind lab.

Mr. RABKIN: We need to reduce our carbon footprint. So the initial goal of the project was to take advantage of those gobs of wind that are coming right past us all the time, and to see if we could significantly reduce the amount of power that we pull off the grid and replace it with nice, clean, wind power.

BLOCK: Rabkin says this $300,000 project, including all the permits and custom engineering, is really an experiment. It's paid for by donors, and he's not expecting a lot of power.

Mr. RABKIN: If we do well, we'll generate about enough electricity to power three suburban homes. That is a very small fraction of the museum's overall power. And it really suggests the difficulty in an institution like this, generating enough power to really make a dent if you're doing it with building-mounted wind turbines.

A homeowner might be able to do it with one of these turbines mounted on the ground. But a business, mounting these turbines on top of their structure? If they consume energy the way we consume energy, they're not going to make a big dent in it.

Mr. ALEX WILSON (Founder and President, Building Green): I'm a huge fan of wind power. I have been for years, for decades.

BLOCK: That's Alex Wilson, who has started a publishing and consulting company called Building Green. Big wind, he likes. But he says he's become disenchanted with small, rooftop wind power. He's written an article called "The Folly of Building-Integrated Wind." Wilson says the air around buildings is too turbulent, not a steady stream. Noise and vibration from turbines can be a problem. And he has big questions about whether small turbines that generate only a few kilowatts are worth it.

Mr. WILSON: Really, in my mind, the Achilles' heel of building-integrated wind is economics. There's a huge economy of scale with wind power. Turbines being put into these big wind farms are several megawatts. And it's hard to be cost-effective with small turbines. And when we put them on top of buildings, the cost goes up and the performance goes down.

BLOCK: Well, if wind is a disappointment, what's a better option?

Mr. WILSON: Well, on buildings, photovoltaics makes a great deal of sense. Right now for building-integrated applications, the cost of PV and wind are fairly close. And PV panels don't have the maintenance costs and issues that wind has.

BLOCK: So solar beats wind.

Mr. WILSON: Solar beats wind on buildings, in my estimation.

Mr. HESS: Some of the over-promise and over-commitment that was made early in the life of small wind has come back to hurt.

BLOCK: Mike Hess, the CEO of Mariah Power, says he is sensitive to Alex Wilson's concerns. He says the industry has sometimes promised better results than it could actually produce.

Mr. HESS: We'll exceed our specifications in almost every case, because I have always been worried about the fact that wind had a bad reputation and we needed to improve it. So if someone tells us it's not delivering, one, we try to fix it; we try to understand it. We have monitoring in it so we can review it. And at worst case, I have no doubt in my mind if somebody said, I don't like it, it doesn't work like I think it is, I'll take it back.

BLOCK: You'll refund the money?

Mr. HESS: Completely. If I can be the Maytag of wind turbines, I'm going to be a very happy camper going forward.

BLOCK: Hess's company is getting a lot of help: $3.2 million in federal stimulus money to fund production and jobs at a former auto parts plant in Manistee, Michigan. There are also federal and state incentives for small turbine buyers. So, if you're paying eight to $15,000 for one of the smaller models we looked at, you should get a few thousand back.

There seems to be general agreement that if you have a spot on the ground with good, steady wind, a small turbine should pay off in three to 10 years, maybe more. As for turbines that dot city roofs, like chimneys or TV antennas, Alex Wilson of Building Green says maybe he can still be convinced.

Mr. WILSON: There may be a system that comes along - the better mousetrap - that actually solves all the concerns that I raised. I'll be the first to get behind that and feel very excited about that. Today, I just think there are better applications for those turbines, and better applications for wind power in general.

BLOCK: But folly or no, the small wind industry expects to see big growth. The American Wind Energy Association says more than 10,000 small turbines were sold in the U.S. last year. And they're projecting exponential growth in years to come.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.