“Across the country people are saving money and helping the environment by using small wind turbines to power their homes, farms and businesses” said Larry Flowers, AWEA Deputy Director of Distributed and Community Wind. “This report shows that the market for clean, affordable, homegrown wind energy is as good in small scale applications as it is for large utilities.”
Small wind power is gaining in popularity. Although widespread interest in wind energy may be relatively new, the technology found in modern wind turbines has been more than three decades in the making.
Step outside on almost any given day in Oklahoma, and it is likely you will encounter one of the state’s most abundant natural resources: wind.
Much attention has been paid to the construction of large wind farm plants in the state, particularly in western Oklahoma. But some in the renewable energy industry are thinking smaller, marketing turbines that can be used to power everything from individual homes to light industry, municipal complexes and business applications.
Wind farm turbines typically produce more than 1.5 megawatts, or 1,500 kilowatts of electricity. In contrast, turbines for individual and commercial applications typically range from 1 kilowatt to 100 kilowatts. The use of wind turbines, great and small, has grown in recent years as energy prices and interest in green energy have risen.
But, although widespread interest in wind power may be relatively new, the technology found in modern wind turbines has been more than three decades in the making.
Mike Bergey, president of Bergey WindPower Co. of Norman, has been in the wind turbine business for more than 34 years. His father and current company CEO, Karl Bergey, was a professor of aeronautics at the University of Oklahoma in the 1970s. The father-son team founded the company after Bergey graduated from OU in 1977 with an engineering degree.
"The company really grew out of research at OU," Bergey said. That research has grown to a company that now produces about 1,000 turbines each year.
Bergey WindPower specializes in 1-kilowatt to 10-kilowatt turbines for residential and telecom applications. Their turbines are marketed to power individual homes, ranches and remote cellular tower sites for the telecom industry.
Bergey manufactures turbines in Norman, where it employs 35 workers, and in China for the burgeoning Chinese telecom industry.
Bergey said 98 percent of the company’s U.S. sales are "concentrated in states other than Oklahoma due to relatively low electricity costs and a lack of state subsidies for residential and commercial wind power in Oklahoma." The bulk of the company’s U.S. sales are in New York, Vermont, Ohio and California, states with high electricity costs and favorable state subsidies.
"In Oklahoma, the state offers subsidies for large wind farms, which we think is a good policy," Bergey said. "But the state currently doesn’t offer the same incentives for individual homes and farms, and we would hope that someday they would provide homeowners with the same subsidies they provide the big wind farms."
Even without dedicated state subsidies for small turbines, Bergey said there’s "still a lot of room for growth in Oklahoma with the existing federal subsidies."
"One of the programs that’s not used as much as it could be is the USDA grants for wind turbines," he said.
U.S. Department of Agriculture currently offers grants to cover 25 percent of the cost of a turbine through its Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). The grant is limited to for-profit businesses and agriculture producers.
The federal government also provides a 30 percent tax credit for wind turbines. In addition, farms, ranches and small businesses can claim advanced depreciation on the value of the turbine, which allows the customer to claim 100 percent of the turbine’s depreciation in the first year.
"With the existing federal subsidies, the turbines’ depreciation rates and our excellent wind resources in Oklahoma, a customer can expect the turbine to pay for itself in five to eight years," Bergey said. The turbines have an expected life span of 30 to 50 years.
"With all that taken into consideration," Bergey said, "if you look at it in the long term, a wind turbine is really an excellent investment."
Bergey WindPower markets its turbines in Oklahoma through a network of six independent distributors. Its local competitor is P&K Equipment, which distributes 5-kilowatt to 100-kilowatt turbines, primarily for Endurance Wind Power and Northern Power Systems.
Monty Taylor, wind energy specialist for P&K Equipment, said the company got into the wind turbine business with smaller turbines, primarily 5-kilowatt turbines.
"We found those turbines were great for smaller users, but our primary market has become ranchers with shops and large outbuildings and businesses," Taylor said. Since then, the company has gravitated more to larger turbines, primarily in the 50-kilowatt to 100-kilowatt range.
"We offer turbines that can power everything from a small hunting cabin up to an entire town," Taylor said. The company still markets 5-kilowatt and 10-kilowatt turbines for homes and farms, while the larger 50-kilowatt to 100-kilowatt models are used to power school districts, larger businesses and municipal complexes.
Taylor said most of P&K’s light turbines are wired "into the meter" at a home or business, tying the turbine into the conventional power providers’ lines.
"Most of our turbines operate ‘on the grid,’" Taylor said, "which basically means that when the wind’s not blowing, your meter will be turning, and when the wind is blowing, your meter will turn backwards."
Taylor said when the turbine is rotating enough to cover the customer’s electricity usage, the meter will stand still, and excess production from the turbine will cause the meter to turn backward.
He said one of the largest misconceptions about wind turbines involves how power is sold back to a utility company when a residential turbine produces more power than the customer is using.
"A lot of people think if you produce more power than you use, then the co-op is required to buy it back, but that’s not the case," Taylor said.
He said some providers, such as OG&E, actually will buy power back, but when utility companies do buy power back from a turbine producer, it is bought at the wholesale price, much lower than the customer’s price.
"A lot of people think they’re going to get rich selling power back to the power company," Taylor said. "Nobody wishes that was true more than I do, because if it were true, I couldn’t stock enough turbines."
Even if a turbine won’t make you rich, it will pay for itself in about seven years, Taylor said, and provide the customer with clean, renewable energy. Taylor said those features are keeping him busy bidding and installing new turbine projects.
"We should be busy through February or March of next year, but of course we can always take more orders," he said.
Before a turbine is installed, or even purchased, Taylor conducts a feasibility study on the prospective location. That study takes into account the surrounding terrain, weather data for the location, the customer’s finances and prospective tax incentives, electricity demands and projected turbine output based on prevailing winds.
Taylor said the pre-installation study gives prospective customers an idea of how long it will take for their turbine to pay for itself.
"Just a one mile per hour difference in the average wind speed at a site can make a year’s difference in how long it takes a turbine to pay out," Taylor said. "East of I-35, they don’t get as much wind as we do out here, and it’s going to take a lot longer for a turbine to pay out. But here, we’re in a very good wind zone."
Taylor said there are some basic requirements that factor into selecting a site for a turbine. He said the customer would need at least a half acre of land and the tower needs to be 200 feet from and 40 feet higher than the closest obstruction and within 300 feet of the closest meter.
Most turbines will reach peak efficiency at a wind speed of 21-22 mph, but can stand up to the higher winds experienced in Oklahoma. Taylor said modern turbines are designed to withstand wind speeds of 100-130 mph.
"I usually tell people as a general rule of thumb, ‘If the turbine is gone, you probably don’t have anything left to power anyway,’" Taylor said.
P&K recently completed installation of a turbine for a waste water treatment facility in Guthrie, and Taylor recently returned from bidding a turbine for a school district in Corpus Christi, Texas.
One of its earlier installations can be seen at Enid’s Autry Technology Center, where a 5-kilowatt turbine was installed to serve both as a power source and a training tool.
Melissa Baker, Autry Tech’s director of communications and marketing, said the turbine provides partial power to one of the technology center’s buildings, but it was installed primarily to develop students’ skills for the wind power industry.
"It is important to us to be at the forefront of utilizing alternative energy and for our students to gain exposure to wind energy technologies," Baker said. "The turbine brings awareness to alternative energy resources."
About 45 miles northwest of Enid, wind power technology is being put to practical use in the town of Carmen.
The town took advantage of grant funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to purchase five turbines from P&K last year. The grant, which was administered by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, was intended to promote renewable energy sources in municipal applications.
Therese Kephart, Carmen town clerk, said the town started applying for the wind power grant when the funding was announced in April 2010.
"We got an email from the Department of Commerce announcing the grant, and we decided, ‘What the heck, let’s check it out.’"
Kephart said the availability of grant funding was the key factor in the town’s decision to install the turbines.
"We couldn’t afford to do this on our own, and if it weren’t for the grant it probably wouldn’t even have been discussed," she said.
The work of completing the lengthy grant application paid off when the town was awarded $248,500 in direct funds to install the five turbines.
Three 5-kilowatt turbines were installed last year. The town has been selling the power from those turbines to Alfalfa Electric Cooperative in hopes of providing enough money to hire a second maintenance worker. The remaining two turbines, a 5-kilowatt turbine to power a town maintenance building and a 10-kilowatt turbine to power a town water well, are in the process of being installed.
Kephart said the turbines, once operational, are expected to cover $600 per month worth of utilities and the wages for the second maintenance worker.
"They’re really going to help us out," she said. "It doesn’t sound like much money, but it really adds up, especially for a town this size."
The turbines also are bringing an unexpected benefit to the town: visitors.
"They attract people," Kephart said. "It’s a big thing around here … you can see the turbines from the highway, and we get quite a few people stopping through town just to see what they’re about. We’re hoping they’ll eventually help increase our sales tax."
Federal stimulus money also will be bringing a larger turbine to Enid.
Dustin Pyeatt, communications manager for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, stated the Department of Energy approved a $471,000 stimulus grant last year for renewable energy upgrades at Chisholm Trail Expo Center.
The grant package calls for installing a 50-kilowatt wind turbine, energy-efficient lighting and a geothermal system.
Chisholm Trail Expo Center general manager Steven Barnes said the turbine is expected to significantly reduce the expo center’s utility expenses.
"We currently spend about $100,000 a year on electricity, and we hope to cut that number significantly with the wind turbine," Barnes said. "I hope the money we spend on electricity each year will be cut by a third, and hopefully by half, and that will be a significant savings for us on an annual basis."
Barnes said the turbine project currently is out for bids, with contractors’ bids slated to be opened later this month.
For information on the Rural Energy for America Program, go to www.rurdev.usda.gov/ok/. For general information on wind power and renewable energy incentives, go to the Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative at www.seic.okstate.edu/owpi or the Oklahoma Renewable Energy Council at www.seic.okstate.edu/orec.
James Neal, www.enidnews.com