Small Wind Turbines Flourish in the U.S.


The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) recently released its annual Global Market Study [PDF] of the small wind market, and I thought I'd share this information considering the intersect of green building and small wind.  According to the study, the U.S. market for small wind turbines — those with a capacity of 100 kW of less — added 20.3 MW of new capacity on $82.4 million in sales in 2009. 

This new growth comes from sales of 9,800 new units, pushing national capacity beyond the 100 MW mark.  In fact, AWEA estimates that half of all small wind capacity was installed in the last three years. 

For comparison, in 2008, the U.S. market for small wind turbines added a total of 17.3 MW in new capacity.  So, even in tough economic times, the industry recognized more than 15% year over year growth. 

Additionally, according to the Global Market Study, 95% of all systems sold in the U.S. were made by U.S. manufacturers, while two-thirds of all small wind systems sold nationally were made by U.S. manufacturers.  

The top three U.S. manufacturers of small wind systems include Southwest Windpower, Northern Power Systems, and Bergey Windpower Co

The study found that 187 units were installed in urban and rooftop settings (e.g., Twelve West and Adobe) with a total capacity of 400 kW — less than 2% of the U.S. small wind market.  Due to turbulent and unpredictable winds near buildings and structures, these turbines have performance problems that the industry is still trying to solve. 

The primary driver of growth was perhaps the expanded investment tax credit.  With the 30% ITC, the industry was able to focus on other issues, such as net metering, permitting, interconnection regulation, and installer and equipment certifications.  

[+] Download the 2010 AWEA Small Wind Global Market Study [PDF]. 

Photo credit: Southwest Windpower.

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  • Anonymous

    Wind certainly has its applications and is cool and all but it is a bit of a disservice to speak only in terms of capacity. This is a problem that is becoming rampant when discussing alternative sources of energy like wind and solar. Capacity doesn’t really tell much of the story if 400 MW only results in a net generation of 1 MW. You can build tons of solar and wind farms with a capacity that gives the perception that such farms would be capable of producing enough electricity for our current and future needs only to find out that these farms only produce that capacity for a very short amount of time during ideal conditions. Some food for thought; don’t look at design capacity alone. Focus on how much electricity a particular technology can be expected to have produced at the end of the day.

  • Barry Greene

    xsimpletunx, yes one needs to look at other data to realize the impact potential capacity turning into production. For that, check out California AB510. It was driven through to for many reasons. Of of them was to increase the cap placed on power company to pay for residential customers for power produced and placed on the grid (Netmetering and now feed-in-tariffs). The old net metering cap limits solar to
    2.5% of a retail electric service provider’s “aggregate customer peak demand.”. California exceeded 2.5% in late 2009. That means all the solar and wind installations were feeding over 2.5%. This was excess power, feeding in after balancing the local use. AB510 raises this cap to 10%.

    So, if you are looking for hard data on the effectiveness of the potential power, look at the data from the utility boards, tariffs, and other data. In California we were luck. The 2% to 10% issue resolved in AB510 is big victory for distributed and locally produces power.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, I am familiar with those standards as well as the numbers. My point was just that the article paints a rosy picture and gives the perception that if you install wind in sufficient capacity equal to a particular percentage of the total capacity that it will actually produce an equivalent amount of electrical generation when this is not the case. its important to compare things based on their net generating capacity and not simply their design capacity. For instance, a 1 GW nuclear plant can produce 1 GW at almost any point during a 24 hour period whereas a 1 GW wind farm is dependent on the wind blowing at a high enough velocity.

      Then theres cost. Like the post below points out, wind is costly and only approaches a return on investment in certain areas with ideal wind conditions. This is why large scale wind farms could end up being a bad idea since actually producing 1 GWhr from a wind farm could actually be very expensive. Most likely more expensive than many other technologies.

      Wind has its place but its likely not as a heavy hitter in the large scheme of things. 20-30% of total net generating capacity tops and even that is wishful thinking.

  • MrSteve007

    “The study found that 187 units were installed in urban and rooftop settings (e.g., Twelve West and Adobe) with a total capacity of 400 kW”

    I recently attended a USGBC judging competition where the folks of Twelve West presented some of their findings of their building integrated wind. What I found interesting is that they said the turbines were essentially a visual marketing point, and that even with incentives, they’ll never come close to generating enough energy to justify their costs.

    I think that statement says enough about building integrated wind.

    • Larry Cruse

      Off the grid energy generators can sometimes justify their costs because of special circumstances, not because they provide continuous power. For instance, in San Diego County the public utility (SDG&E) plans to shut down parts of the grid under high fire danger conditions (characterized by high winds and low humidity). Having an alternative, wind-driven power source to drive a water pump might be enough to save a house. the rest of the year, any intermittent yield would be gravy.

      Similarly, other regions have special, local conditions. We’ve all seen cold weather ice storms disrupt power delivery. There, too, short duration, independent power generation can serve a useful purpose.

      Finally, there are random grid failures to which we are all subject, making me question the whole premise of grid reliability. Likewise, i’d welcome more industry concern about wind turbine safety and reliability in home applications, from preventing bird strikes to fail-safe engineering in worst case scenarios, especially due to poor maintenance.

      • Anonymous

        But you have to consider two things. What if the wind isn’t blowing or not hard enough? And is wind a better place to put your money than say solar? Solar panels continue to work on cloudy days whereas you may not have sufficient wind on a given day or several and its probably cheaper to install a solar system. Wind has its place but there is often a better choice once all things are considered. And this is without considering geothermal or gas or bloom boxes ; )

        • Larry Cruse

          The point i was trying to make is about special circumstances. When they prevail, appropriate technology is invaluable. In the case of wind-driven wild fires, if the wind stops, the fire stops, thereby solving the problem. A wind-driven pump would be proportionately responsive to the threat.

          As for incidental applications, roof turbine vents are popular here for attic air circulation in all seasons. They are cheap, simple, silent, bird safe, and rotate as hot attic air vents through them, even when there is no wind. The installed capacity represents a huge potential for electrical generation at low cost.

          I can imagine other regions to have similar latent generating capacity
          if there was more focus on micro power generation.

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