Homing in on wind and solar energy

Written by John Dodge, Contributor

I've thought a lot about home wind energy and solar photovoltaics, but have yet to make a move. There's a lot to consider.

Let's look at wind energy. One turbine that interests me is the Skystream 3.7 turbine from Southwest Windpower. It's supposedly quiet with peak output of 2.4 kilowatts and promises to supply a household or small business with 40-90% of its energy needs. Nice.

But check out the wind chart. Skystream produces almost no electricty at windspeeds between 0-11 mph and optimally produces between 22.3-33.5 mph. Where we are 35 miles of Boston averages about five mph windspeed at ground level. We might get windy days every 1-2 weeks with windspeeds in the 20s, but as you can see, a turbine's output is as predictable as the weather.

Indeed, turbines that have gone up in our area have yielded disappointing results, producing a fraction of their promised output.

Then there's the matter of the tower. My two flat acres sit amid trees, thus necessitating a tower of at least 100 feet and probably more like 130 to completely clear treetops to catch the smoothest air. Granted, my wind readings come from atop my garage not at 130 feet where they would be considerably better.

I asked my building inspector a year ago about height restrictions and he didn't have a clue. A nearby 600 kilowatt wind turbine which is 295 feet high when the bladetip strikes 12 has stirred a hornet's nest of controversy. Shadow flicker, noise and its imposing presence have irritated neighbors and passers-by alike.

This tower has stirred controversy.

While it met the setback rules during the permitting process, it is probably too close to downtown and neighborhoods. Would I want it next to me? No and I am a strong wind energy advocate. In Europe, much more powerful wind turbines dot the landscape in great number, but are smartly located in elevated but relatively remote areas. From a distance where flicker and noise don't matter, they are quite majestic and aesthetically pleasing.

Solar photovoltaics might be the way to go, but certainly the sun doesn't shine as often or as strongly in the Northeast as in Phoenix. It's the same basic supply problem as wind. However, there are no moving parts, hence less maintenance than a turbine. A friend put in several solar panels at his home and tied it back into the grid. Total cost was about $20,000, which was substantially defrayed by numerous tax credits and state incentives.

Something he said struck me about selling excess power back to the grid on a sunny day: "I'm probably making $3 today." That said, he gets the satisfaction of supplying all the electricity for his home when the sun shines.

Next week, I will blog about the Zero Energy Challenge in Massachusetts and in the future about such exciting developments as solar shingles. Investigating such efforts and technologies should help in all the considering I have to do before making the move.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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