Getting a wind turbine if you live in a windy area

Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

Make energy while the wind blows

For lucky inhabitants of windswept stretches of the UK, a wind turbine in the garden could be a nice little earner.

When it comes to wind, Britain has the dubious honour of being number one in Europe. In fact, almost half of Europe's wind energy buffets these islands.

In windy areas, such as the outskirts of Wick and parts of Portsmouth, a turbine could reduce your electricity bills by as much as half - even more in remote, off-grid homes where conventional supply is impractical. If you live in the stills of suburbia, however, the economics are anything but appealing according to the Building Research Establishment (BRE).

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Photo: Getting a wind turbine if you live in a windy area

Saves up to 1,700kg of CO2 a year

135 Bloomers are doing this

CO2 reduction 3 out of 5

Cheapness 3 out of 5

Popularity 2 out of 5

Cost 1,500 - 25,000

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In this article:

How does it work?

To put it simply: wind hits blade, blade turns, electricity is generated. Turbines come in a range of sizes, prices and powers. Without boring you rigid, the essentials are:

  • Wind speed increases with height so it's best to have the turbine as high as possible on your roof or up a mast
  • The wind turbulence in towns or wooded areas means turbines become ineffective
  • On stormy winter nights you're bound to make more energy than you can burn but you can sell the surplus back to the grid

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How will it make a difference?

Pub Fact

  • In the UK we have 40% of Europe's total wind energy - the largest potential wind energy resource in Europe
  • A wind turbine on a windy Scottish roof could provide almost half of the average home's energy use - about 3,000kWh a year, according to the BRE
  • However, a wind turbine on a house in the still suburbs of south-east England could provide as little as 2% of the average home's energy use

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What's the debate?

"Isn't wind energy best left to the big commercial turbines?"

Due to the laws of physics, power output from a wind turbine increases with the wind velocity cubed. In addition, small turbines are disproportionately affected by turbulence. So unless your turbine is high up and being blasted with wind, it may be more effective to leave the job to the wind farms. Read our article if you're considering the switch to green energy.

"Manufacturing a turbine from aluminium and fibreglass can't be good for the environment"

According to the Building Research Establishment Trust, the embodied CO2 of a mini wind turbine equate to driving about 600 miles in a car. Used in windy conditions, turbines can repay their carbon debts. In the wrong location, a small turbine can cost more CO2 than it will ever save.

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How do I do it?

  • Get your house in order first by applying basic energy efficiency measures like insulation. You need to anyway before you can apply for a Low Carbon Buildings Programme (LCBP) grant
  • Do the maths. If you live in a city or your local winds are below six metres per second, a turbine's unlikely to win significant carbon or cash savings. Find a (very approximate) estimate: BERR's Database
  • Talk to neighbours and the council about planning issues: Planning Portal
  • Do some window-shopping on LCBP. Roof-tops are cheaper than mast-tops (but make less electricity). Off-grid turbines additionally need pricey battery packs which have to be replaced every decade
  • Find a reliable installer: LCBP
  • Book the turbine in for a check-up every few years during its 20-year lifetime
  • Consider backing up the wind turbine with solar panels for still summer days

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What's stopping me?

"Won't the neighbours complain about a noisy turbine?"

While wind farms are notorious for their low frequency noise, particularly in high winds, noise is generally not an issue with small modern wind turbines according to English Heritage. That said, most manufacturers recommend installing pads with the brackets to dampen the vibration of an active turbine.

"Don't the blades of the turbine dice migrating birds?"

Wind turbines built in poorly-chosen areas can hurt vulnerable bird populations. (Read the BBC article.) However, research in the journal Nature suggests that climate change itself poses more of a danger to birds than the odd wind turbine: more than 25% of species in sample regions of the Earth could be committed to extinction by 2050 due to climate change.

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Comments

Baz, Shropshire 2009-02-02

Hello Bloomers,
On the subject of wind turbines, did you know that the grid tie inverters used for wind power applications are really modified solar inverters. OK, the hardware may be different but the embedded software (operating program) must ensure the device complies to G83 1/1. This governs the frequency, voltage, WAIT timer and checks to make sure the grid supply is available before the output of the inverter is conneceted to the grid. The function inportant to us the a WAIT for 3 minutes before connecting to the grid. In wind applications the wind may not be continuous and the wait timer may be frequently used, the windmill will just freewheel under these conditions. If a battery bank is connected before the inverter, it will charge from the windmill and keep the inverter running for a few minutes between wind blowing. This avoids the wait timer being invoked and wasting wind time and should not affect the G83 status of the inverter.

Reggie, Taunton 2008-10-05

How about an action to make your home more travel friendly?

Installing somewhere in your garage to park your bike, an electric charging point, clearing the alleyway so you can park your bike round the back, not converting your front garden into a parking space, installing a home office to allow you to work at home once a week etc?

Travel is often left out of home design, but with the Code for Sustainable Homes it's becoming more important, and there are things that existing householders can do that they should be able to get at least one "bloom" for.

DavidfromNorfolk 2008-08-14

I don't know if this counts for this action, we have not installed a wind turbine because our property is 'shaded' by trees and other houses so we are unable to make full use of the available wind.
However we have invested some of our money in a wind farm co-operative, helping make it possible for new wind power generation to be installed. Anyone interested in doing this can go to the British Wind Energy Association website for information.

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Glossary terms used on this page
CO2
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Carbon
Carbon is the fourth most common chemical element in the universe, and carbon compounds - in other words, carbon chemically combined with other elements - are the basis of all known life forms on earth. Pure carbon appears in many apparently diverse forms, from diamond to graphite to charcoal, but it is much more commonly found in substances such as coal, oil, natural gas, wood and peat that we use for fuel. When we burn these substances to provide energy - either directly in our homes as heat, or in power stations to produce electricity - the combustion process produces 'oxides' of carbon, including the gas CO2.
Embodied energy
Embodied energy - sometimes referred to as 'embedded energy' - is the energy used (and therefore the CO2 emissions) in manufacturing, packaging and transporting a product, material or service. So when calculating the CO2 savings from a new energy-efficient product such as a boiler or washing machine, its embodied energy needs to be taken into account. Usually the energy saved in use will quickly compensate for the embodied energy, but in some cases - such as small urban wind turbines - it may be that a product will use more energy in its manufacture than it will save across its lifetime.
Energy efficiency
Something that is energy efficient achieves the greatest useful output for the least expenditure of energy, or improves the ratio between the two. For example, energy efficient car engines improve the car's fuel economy.
Fibreglass
Fibreglass is a cloth woven from very fine threads of glass and commonly used as an insulating material.
Kilowatt-hours (kWh)
A kilowatt-hour is an amount of energy equivalent to a power of one kilowatt (a thousand watts) running for one hour. The unit is commonly used on electricity meters. If you know how many kilowatt-hours of energy your household uses, you can translate this into kilograms of CO2 emitted by multiplying it by 0.527. A megawatt hour (MWh) is an amount of energy equivalent to the power of one megawatt (a million watts) running for one hour. Similarly, a gigawatt hour (GWh) is a billion watts for one hour, and a terawatt hour (TWh) is a trillion. While your domestic gas bill will be set out in kWh, the output for a power station, for example, will obviously be expressed in one of these much larger units.
National Grid
The grid, or National Grid, is a privately owned network of electricity supply lines that stretch from the power stations where the electricity is generated to the homes and businesses where it is used. In some parts of the UK, local or domestic microgeneration may make it feasible to live "off grid", while some homes in remote parts of the country have no choice because it does not reach them. In some cases, microgeneration means there is potential for people to sell surplus electricity back to the grid.
Planning permission
Planning permission is consent, usually from a local council, to build on land, or change the use of land or buildings. Significant structural change, such as that often associated with microgeneration projects, is likely to require planning permission. Changes to listed buildings require additional, separate consent.
Turbulence
Turbulence describes irregular eddies of air within the general air current. It can be caused when wind flows over obstacles such as trees or buildings and gets 'churned up', so it no longer has a smooth flow. Wind turbines do not handle turbulence well and power production can be dramatically decreased.
Wind turbine
All turbines use kinetic (movement) energy to cause a bladed rotor to turn and so generate electricity. A wind turbine is a machine that captures the force of the wind. Often seen in remote, exposed coastal regions or offshore where wind speeds are greatest and most consistent, smaller versions can be installed on houses, but research suggests they may be useless, or even counter-productive, in urban settings.

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