Moving Small Wind into the Marketplace

A landowner in Boulder County, Colorado wants to install a small wind turbine on his property just outside the Boulder city limits. Trudy Forsyth, an engineer who leads the distributed wind portion of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) wind program in Golden, Colorado, described what lies ahead for this property owner and others embarking on small wind projects. We met up this past week at the home of wind developer, Marilyn Hardy, for a gathering of Women in Sustainable Energy (WISE) where Trudy enumerated to a couple of us FIESTYs (Females in Energy Stop Talking, Yell!*) what it will take to get small wind into the marketplace.

The buyer of small wind is not an electric utility, but a homeowner or a business like a farmer. Trudy notes, small wind turbines can be smart investments for farms, especially electricity-intensive hog and dairy operations which are susceptible to rising electric grid and fuel prices. “These small wind turbines offer farmers stability and a hedge against price increases,” she says, adding that NREL “is working in rural America to get small wind in place.”

The hurdles to market adoption for this consumer market differ from those faced in utility-scale projects. (In marketing parlance, it’s not B-to-B so much as B-to-C.) Trudy finds that the consumer adoption curve, from the idea of a small wind project to actual install, takes about three years. She says that is the length of the learning curve for the buyer to go through all of the pieces and to determine how the hurdles may affect the project. NREL’s Wind Powering America program guides education and outreach, but nurturing small wind to fruition takes something more. Yes, even more than education, outreach and marketing.

Trudy counted on her fingers the three key elements required for small wind to make in the marketplace: a stimulating policy environment; reduced ‘hassle factors’; and a supporting infrastructure.

At the recent Solar2006 conference, a solar installer from California cited “a supportive government” as a critical element to solar adoption in the marketplace. The same is true for small wind. A stimulating policy environment could be a renewable energy portfolio standard. Here in Colorado, unfortunately, the designers of Colorado’s RPS did not include small wind. As a result, unlike solar, small wind gets no boost through utility marketing, education and outreach, or ratepayer-financed rebates.

Second on Trudy’s list is reduced ‘hassle factors’: amenable zoning laws, interconnection agreements, insurance requirements, and net metering. These last three ‘hassle factors’ were of notable contention during rulemaking for the solar set-aside in Colorado’s RPS. The Boulder landowner will fly solo to decipher these regulations, rules and requirements for his small wind project.

Finally, the customer needs supportive infrastructure for the small wind project: educators, dealers, installers, site assessors and people who work in the small wind business. Think quickly, where would you go to find such people in your (windy) neck of the woods?

Were the Boulder landowner located in the upper Midwest (say, Wisconsin) or the Northeast (say, Vermont), his probability of success would be better. Wisconsin, Trudy says, is where the three key elements come together: “Wisconsin has some of the best infrastructure for small wind.” Renew Wisconsin provides a “small wind toolbox,” and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association trains small wind site assessors. (MREA recently held a conference, “Barriers to the Installation of Small Wind Systems.”) Focus on Energy, also in Wisconsin, pays a site assessor two-thirds of the assessment cost and the customer pays one-third. The assessor determines the best place for a small wind turbine and can identify the best product for the particular site. The assessor also instructs the buyer how to interconnect with the utility…and who the utility is. Trudy notes that successful installations “pivot on the site assessor.”

Yet, while Wisconsin has a moderate, but not great, policy environment – and some state zoning laws in place for small wind – its struggles with ‘hassle factors’ (interconnection agreements, insurance requirements, and net metering).

Vermont also does fairly well, Trudy believes, because it’s small and green in its beliefs, and lots of smaller installers are supposed to be getting on board. Still, as in Wisconsin, remedies for the ‘hassle factors’ are not in place in Vermont.

FIESTY WISE members are doing their part to move this distributed, small-sized and consumer-oriented clean energy technology into the marketplace. This week, a couple of them will attend The Nevada Wind Workshop which proclaims, “Energy customers want to buy in, too, recognizing that new small wind systems are affordable, as well as reliable and environmentally appealing.” They will discuss “details on cost-effective ways to sidestep transmission access problems, through distribution-scale wind power development.”

Go, girls, go.

*Credit for “FIESTY” belongs to Southwest Windpower.

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