WATERLOO — There are big gains potentially available in the “small-wind” industry.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center provides the following facts to support that assertion:
-- Iowa’s wind industry supports more than 2,300 manufacturing jobs, which may be the most of any state in the nation.
-- Iowa offers tax credits to promote small-wind energy projects, as well as economic incentives for wind-component manufacturers who are looking at building or expanding in Iowa. All Iowa-based electric utilities are required to offer green power options to their customers.
Iowa ranks second behind Texas in wind energy production, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Small-wind energy, which stands in contrast to the utility-scale wind farms that are gaining a foothold across Iowa, is tailored for small-scale, even individual, use.
In the future, individual homes conceivably could have their own turbines.
According to Ron Stimmel, small-wind advocate with the Washington, D.C.-based American Wind Energy Association, a small wind turbine can pay for itself in as little as five years.
He said the average home system can cost between $10,000 and $60,000, depending on turbine size. But, Stimmel said, many states and the federal government have tax credits that can defray as much as 30 percent of the costs.
Tom Wind, owner of Jefferson-based Wind Utility Consulting, said incentives are crucial to the success of small wind projects, and Iowa residents are responding to incentives.
“There’s kind of a surge of them this year,” Wind said. “We probably have about 40 megawatts in community wind projects, which are generally school or college or small municipal utility cooperative, a group of farmers and landowners.”
Wind said federal stimulus money in 2009 provided a cash grant through a tax credit for small projects.
Iowa’s 4,000 megawatts generated by wind are well behind Texas’ 10,000, but Iowa is a leader in small-wind usage, Wind said.
“We’re kind of the leader of the pack,” he said. “If you look at a small state with about 3 million people, we have incredible commitment using wind power. Texas has twice as much, but you have to remember how many more number of times of people Texas has.”
Small turbines generally have a power-generating capacity of up to 100 kilowatts. They are turning up on farms, schools, small communities and even individual homes.
Wind cautions that the practicality of switching one’s home from traditional coal-fired power to wind can be an iffy proposition.
“The potential depends on the price of power in the future here,” he said. “It’s difficult, for example, to get a small-wind turbine to be cost-effective. Big ones are cheaper because of bigger economies of scale. The small one costs more per kilowatt hour and it’s difficult to pencil that out for the small homeowner.”
Wind has said the payback on a small turbine can be as long as 10 years.
Cost issues and technology limitations are two hurdles for small-wind growth, said Mark Douglas, executive director with the Iowa Utilities Association.
“It will require change in technology or cost or both to really make it something that becomes an alternative for people,” he said. “There are technology and transmission issues, Technology is getting better at forecasting, but you’d expect that after 10-12 years of investing in the industry would see some advances.”
Wind said there has been progress.
“I think it’s growing in sectors,” he said. “The wind turbines are typically getting better and reliable and more cost-effective. As in any industry, as you learn more and more about them, they become more reliable. Again, it’s difficult to get a payback. You’ve got to have the right circumstances. You’ve got to be in a windy spot in the country where there’s not a lot of trees around.”
Residential usage is a bit trickier than commercial applications, said Mark Wilkinson, director of green energy for PFG Best in Cedar Falls, which distributes turbines and is involved in development of Cedar Valley TechWorks, business venture on a 40-acre site of an old John Deere manufacturing plant in downtown Waterloo focused on research and development of alternative fuels, including wind.
“The thing with city residential, it’s a little tougher because of restrictions on some of the codes,” he said. “But even the city governments are realizing it can be worked out with small wind. That’s where it’s going and it’s kind of like anything — when it first starts out, it’s supply and demand and, once you get things there, the price comes down and everything starts working out. It’s getting to be much more efficient and affordable. And with Iowa, we have good wind to produce electricity with them.”
Businesses in Iowa are seeing enough potential in small wind to get involved in the sector.
“We’re working with the TechWorks project, trying to help bring that whole big project to fruition,” Wilkinson said. “We’ll have the whole wind and there’s the solar company that will be involved. That’s really our big focus is working with them to bring that to reality there as soon as we can. There’s a lot of positive here.”
Wilkinson said small-wind technology is making vast improvements each year.
“Small wind, for one thing, the technology is getting better; it’s more efficient,” he said. “With that, then your return on investment comes down, so that makes it more affordable. The people looking at it are a lot of farmers, small companies that maybe want to supplement their electricity with it. And, there’s residential usage.”
Small-wind figures prominently into TechWorks’ future, said Cary Darrah, general manager.
“In fact, a manufacturing prospect we’re working on with would supply turbines that would be farm-scale and residential uses,” she said. “We all know the larger wind farms have used the maximum amount of space, and small wind is preferable from the ability to use the turbines have more uses. It’s clearly toward small wind. You talk to leaders at the state level, and they’re all pointed to small wind, as opposed to large wind.”