Credit: iStock / esp_imaging

Wind turbines are slowly popping up in urban environments

With the right set up, residential turbines in urban areas can be an effective form of renewable energy

About 20 years ago, my husband and I started composting on our apartment balcony . . . with worms. Our neighbour was horrified and went to the building manager and complained about the dangers: It might smell. The weight of the compost might make our balcony collapse. The worms might escape!

Our landlord, having never heard of apartment composting before, was equally concerned and it took a fair amount of effort to convince him not to reclassify our worms as pets and ban them from the apartment.

Well, we now know worm composting doesn’t lead to rampaging red wigglers or collapsed balconies. But the recent controversy over a proposed urban wind turbine in the Dunbar Heights, Vancouver, brought back the memory of how essential education is when it comes to introducing new green technologies.

Small wind generators have been around for a quite a while (ask anyone who lives on a boat) and used in conjunction with solar panels they can greatly reduce a home’s reliance on conventional energy. But they come with a whole lot of baggage. Like composting toilets, rooftop gardens and rainwater catchments systems (which I’ll explore in future posts), the right installation in the right location, combined with the right education can make all the difference.

Wind Power: What You Need to Know

Wind has been harnessed for centuries and recent advancements in wind energy make it the cheapest form of renewable energy out there. It also tends to be compact – one 1000W generator combined with 7200W of solar is keeping homes in one St Louis subdivision off the grid.

And while it’s not a perfect technology, the bigger problem seems to be perception. In a 2007 report on urban wind use, people in France, the UK and the Netherlands who were quizzed on wind use found that while most of them thought the idea of renewable energy was great, they didn’t want to see it being generated.

The top concerns were:

  • Visual issues
  • Noise
  • Landscape integration
  • Danger to birds
  • And NIMBY (Not in my backyard)

All these concerns are important to consider, although studies show buildings, windows and cats are far more likely to be a danger to birds than a wind turbine. But the major issue seems more of a question of, "Will they actually work in an urban environment?"

The answer to that is evolving. A yearlong Dutch study showed that previous generations of turbines needed to be pretty large before they worked effectively and they tended to be really noisy. But new turbine technology is evolving rapidly. Will the first household wind turbine in Vancouver be a success? We won't know until we try.

Wind Turbine Considerations

Turns out that putting up a wind turbine isn’t for everyone, so keep the following things in mind:

  • Studies show small wind turbines in urban areas are likely to operate at low capacity, be subject to periods of non-operation and take a long time to payback the initial costs.
  • The best sites in urban environments are open areas on the seashore or on top of high-rise commercial buildings.
  • Many built up areas experience turbulent air that reduces the energy output of your generator.
  • You’ll need to monitor the wind speed at your proposed site for a period of time before deciding to install a turbine (knowing the average wind speed will help you select the best turbine and make the initial decision of whether or not wind energy is actually suitable for the location).
  • There are a lot of turbines on the market. Look for one with a long warranty period and ample case studies to back up the manufacturer claims.
  • Turbines do make noise. If the manufacturer says their turbine doesn’t, or can’t provide test results, move on.
  • Turbines are typically mounted on a pole or placed on a roof. If you opt for roof placement, keep in mind the building and roof structure may need to be upgraded.
  • Wind turbines are made up of the wind turbine generator, tower and foundations, cables and the inverter or battery pack.
  • Costs vary widely, but most estimates say that small wind turbines under 100 kilowatts cost $3,000 to $5,000 per kilowatt of capacity. That means a 10 kilowatt machine (enough for an average home) will range from $30,000 - $50,000.