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Small Wind Turbine Use on the Upswing

Rendering of a small wind turbine
Nearly 20,000 small wind systems have been installed in the United Kingdom since 2005. Programs such as the “feed-in” tariff, which guarantees rates of purchase for the power generated by the turbines, have encouraged farmers, households, and small businesses to add small or medium-sized turbines to their properties. Renewable UK

The global capacity of small wind turbines is projected to grow from an estimated 89 MW in 2013 to 182 MW in 2018, according to a new report.

April 16, 2013—The market for small wind turbines, which has existed for 30 years, is finally maturing, according to a new report, Small Wind Power: Demand Drivers, Market Barriers, Technology Issues, Competitive Landscape, and Global Market Forecasts, published by Navigant Research, an arm of the global business consulting and research firm Navigant. The report projects that annual installations of small wind turbines will grow globally from an estimated 89 MW in 2013 to 182 MW in 2018, representing $3.3 billion in cumulative revenue. The majority of the growth will occur in Europe, although North America and the Far East will follow closely behind.

“Small wind systems have a long history of applications in off-grid rural settings including farms, islands, and in marine applications, but increasingly the vast majority of installations are now connected to the grid,” said Dexter Gauntlett, an energy research analyst with the Vancouver, Washington, office of Navigant Research and the author of the report. Gauntlett wrote in response to questions submitted by Civil Engineering online.

The growing interest and investment in so-called microgrids—as well as in hybrid systems that integrate solar collectors, small wind turbines, and diesel generators, for example—have also “widened the opportunity for small wind technology across telecommunications, defense, and other remote location applications,” the report states.

Gauntlett is quick to point out that while small wind turbines account for only a slender portion of clean energy installations worldwide, their number is growing, primarily because of incentives offered by governments. (See “Global Reliance on Clean Energy Possible, Practical,” and “San Francisco Unveils Wind Resource Map,” Civil Engineering online.)

“During the past few years, the U.K. and Italy have offered the richest incentive schemes,” Gauntlett said. The United States has in the past been the leading country for small wind turbine deployment, but the past three years have been challenging because of the expiration or suspension of key incentives in such leading states as California, Ohio, Nevada, and Kansas, according to Gauntlett.

To meet the increasing global demand for these turbines, manufacturing is gearing up, the report notes. Gauntlett said that hundreds of manufacturers around the world, as well as expanding dealer networks and a growing number of national and regional industry associations, are focusing on small wind turbines.

For example, the London-based organization RenewableUK, a nonprofit trade association seeking to expand the use of renewable energy in the United Kingdom, notes on its website that nearly 20,000 small wind systems have been installed there since 2005. “We’ve been spreading the word about these benefits ever since we were formed in 1978 as the British Wind Energy Association,” said Indre Vaizgelaite, the small and medium wind development manager for RenewableUK, in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineering online. Vaizgelaite said that the United Kingdom’s “feed-in tariff,” which offers economic benefits to producers of renewable energy that supplements the country’s national grid, has enabled many more households, farmers, and small businesses to install small wind turbines.

The report notes that the installation of small turbines will benefit from the public’s growing awareness that small wind systems are a viable alternative. RenewableUK has helped in this respect by offering guidelines and planning information to the public. “The message about the benefits of generating clean energy from small wind turbines is getting through,” Vaizgelaite noted. “In February, the National Farmers’ Union said wind energy from small turbines gives hard-pressed farmers a vital stream of income, especially when their harvests are hit by bad weather.”

The emergence of community ownership models and recognition of the fact that small wind turbines can serve as vehicles for economic development also are favoring the trend, the report notes. In windy rural areas of the United States, for example, in Minnesota and Iowa, community wind projects are already emerging, the report notes. And in underdeveloped rural areas with abundant resources, the development of small wind systems could make it possible for communities to export rather than import power, creating both revenue and jobs.

The biggest impediment to the growth of such systems within the United States is the “the political challenge associated with renewing key state-level incentives in times of budget cuts,” Gauntlett said. In the long term, competing against the falling prices of solar photovoltaic systems will be a challenge, he said.

The experiences of the photovoltaic industry—and the tens of billions of public and private dollars that have been spent globally in studying, developing, and deploying such systems in recent years—have caused this market to surpass small wind by several orders of magnitude, according to Gauntlett. While the availability of sun and wind as renewable resources depends on location, in a growing number of cases photovoltaic cells are cheaper and more accessible because of incentives and leasing schemes, he said. However, the acceptance of solar photovoltaics as alternatives to more traditional sources of energy has also paved the way for the development of small wind turbine systems, according to the report.

The report, which is available for purchase at Navigant’s website, offers projections as to which countries will be leaders in wind development over the next six years. Readers will also find information on the sizes of the turbines being deployed in key markets and on the projected costs, incentives, revenue, and global capacity of small wind turbines over the same time period.


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