Manufacturers of small wind turbines are enjoying a boom. Fascinated by the idea of generating their own electricity, many rural homeowners have invested thousands of dollars — sometimes tens of thousands of dollars — in a backyard wind generator.
Devotees of wind energy face several hurdles, however. A good site for a wind turbine — generally a large, rural lot with an average wind speed of at least 10 miles per hour — is rare. Moreover, many communities are reluctant to grant a permit for a wind tower, which may need to be from 80 to 120 feet tall. It’s not unusual for wind tower plans to run afoul of zoning regulations or neighbors’ aesthetic judgments.
Although the market for small wind turbines is growing, many energy experts remain skeptical of the devices’ usefulness. If you are lucky enough to own a great wind site, and if you don’t mind troubleshooting occasional glitches with mechanical and electrical equipment, a backyard wind turbine might make sense for you. Many purchasers of small wind turbines end up disappointed, however, so it’s important to do your homework before you shop for a wind machine.
Decades of wind turbine history
While photovoltaic (PV) systems are now the dominant technology for on-site renewable electricity generation, wind came first. From the late 1920s through the 1940s, off-grid homeowners installed thousands of wind turbines to power DC lights and radios.
In the late 1940s, however, as the wires strung by the Rural Electrification Administration reached more and more farms, the market for small wind turbines began to dry up. When offered the chance, most rural residents jumped at the opportunity to hook up to the grid.
Three decades later, the Arab oil embargo sparked a small-wind revival. During the 1970s, hundreds of back-to-the-land hippies began restoring abandoned Jacobs wind turbines and…