Solar & Wind Systems

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Solar & Wind Systems

Wind Turbine Energy

Small Wind Electric Systems

Small wind electric systems are one of the most cost-effective home-based renewable energy systems. These systems are also nonpolluting.

If a small wind electric system is right for you, it can do the following:

  • Lower your electricity bills by 50%–90%
  • Help you avoid the high costs of having utility power lines extended to a remote location
  • Help uninterruptible power supplies ride through extended utility outages.

Small wind electric systems can also be used for a variety of other applications, including water pumping on farms and ranches.

How a Small Wind Electric System Works

Wind is created by the unequal heating of the Earth's surface by the sun. Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in wind into clean electricity.

When the wind spins the wind turbine's blades, a rotor captures the kinetic energy of the wind and converts it into rotary motion to drive the generator. The manufacturer can provide information on the maximum wind speed at which the turbine is designed to operate safely. Most turbines have automatic over speed-governing systems to keep the rotor from spinning out of control in very high winds.

A small wind system can be connected to an electric distribution system (grid-connected) or it can stand alone (off-grid).

This illustration shows the basic parts of a small wind electric system. It shows the wind turbine. The turbine features two, long, thin blades attached at one end. Next to the the blades is a rotor, which looks like a metal band next to the blades. The rotor's connected to a generator/alternator, a cylindrical-shaped device.  A long, thin, triangular-shaped metal piece extends from the generator/alternator, with a tail at the end, which is shaped and placed much like the tail of one of those small wooden model planes. The turbine sits atop a tower, which is basically a long metal pole. The tower is connected beneath the generator/alternator.

Small Wind Electric System Turbines

Most small wind turbines manufactured today are horizontal-axis, upwind machines that have two or three blades. These blades are usually made of a composite material, such as fiberglass.

The turbine's frame is the structure onto which the rotor, generator, and tail are attached. The amount of energy a turbine will produce is determined primarily by the diameter of its rotor. The diameter of the rotor defines its "swept area," or the quantity of wind intercepted by the turbine. The tail keeps the turbine facing into the wind.

The wind turbine is mounted on a tower to provide better access to stronger winds. In addition to the turbine and tower, small wind electric systems also require balance-of-system components.


Small wind turbines range in size from 400 watts to 20 kilowatts. What size wind turbine you'll need depends on your application. These are the most common applications for small wind turbines:

Grid-Connected Small Wind Electric Systems

Small wind energy systems can be connected to the electricity distribution system. These are called grid-connected systems.

A grid-connected wind turbine can reduce your consumption of utility-supplied electricity for lighting, appliances, and electric heat. If the turbine cannot deliver the amount of energy you need, the utility makes up the difference. When the wind system produces more electricity than the household requires, the excess is sent or sold to the utility.

With this type of grid-connection, note that the wind turbine will operate only when the utility grid is available. During power outages, the wind turbine is required to shut down due to safety concerns.

This illustration shows how a grid-connected small wind system works. It shows the wind blowing a three-bladed wind turbine sitting atop a tower, which looks like a pole. The electricity generated by the wind turbine is shown traveling to an inverter. The inverter is a gray-colored, square box with two gauges near the top of the inverter box. From the inverter box, electricity is shown traveling to both a meter (a white, square box) and  a house, which is identified as the 'load.' From the meter, the electricity is shown traveling to an electricity transmission, which is drawn as vertical pole with two smaller poles drawn at the top. The pole nearest the top is slighting larger than the one beneath it.

Grid-connected systems can be practical if the following conditions exist:

  • You live in an area with average annual wind speed of at least 10 miles per hour (4.5 m/s).
  • Utility-supplied electricity is expensive in your area (about 10–15 cents per kilowatt-hour).
  • The utility's requirements for connecting your system to its grid are not prohibitively expensive.
  • There are good incentives for the sale of excess electricity or for the purchase of wind turbines.

Federal regulations (specifically, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978, or PURPA) require utilities to connect with and purchase power from small wind energy systems. However, you should contact your utility before connecting to its distribution lines to address any power quality and safety concerns.

Your utility can provide you with a list of requirements for connecting your system to the grid.

Wind Power in Stand-Alone Systems

Wind Power can be used in off-grid systems, also called stand-alone systems, not connected to an electric distribution system or grid. In these applications, small wind electric systems can be used in combination with other components—including a small solar electric system—to create hybrid power systems. Hybrid power systems can provide reliable off-grid power for homes, farms, or even entire communities (a co-housing project, for example) that are far from the nearest utility lines.

An off-grid, hybrid electric system may be practical for you if the items below describe your situation:

  • You live in an area with average annual wind speed of at least 9 miles per hour (4.0 m/s).
  • A grid connection is not available or can only be made through an expensive extension. The cost of running a power line to a remote site to connect with the utility grid can be prohibitive, ranging from $15,000 to more than $50,000 per mile, depending on terrain.
  • You would like to gain energy independence from the utility.
  • You would like to generate clean power.

Equipment Required for Stand-Alone Systems

In addition to purchasing photovoltaic panels, a wind turbine, or a small hydro power system, you will need to invest in some additional equipment (called "balance-of-system") to condition and safely transmit the electricity to the load that will use it.

A diagram of a typical, alternating-current, battery-based system. It shows the wiring/current traveling from a photovoltaic module (a square-shaped box containing several circular solar cells), connected to a grounding circuit, to a charge controller (a rectangular-shaped box with a knob on the left and two display windows with gauges on its front). From the charge controller, the current/wiring then travels to an inverter (a rectangular-shaped box with two electric outlets) and a battery (a rectangular-shaped box with two knobs on top), both of which are connected to another grounding circuit. A portable, box-shaped fan, called the electric load, is plugged into one of the inverter's electric outlets.

Diagram of a typical AC, battery-based system.

The amount of equipment you will need to buy depends on what you want your system to do. In the simplest systems, the current generated by, for example, your wind turbine is connected directly to the load. However, if you want to store power for use when your turbine isn't producing electricity, you will want to purchase batteries and a charge controller. Depending on your needs, balance-of-system equipment could account for half of your total system costs. Your system supplier will be able to tell you exactly what equipment you will need for your situation.

Charge Controllers for Stand-Alone Systems

A photo of a charge controller. The charge controller—two rectangular-shaped boxes with switches and small, round indicator lights—has wiring running to and from it.

Charge controllers regulate the electricity flowing from the generation source into your battery or load. Photo credit: Harin Ullal

This device regulates rates of flow of electricity from the generation source to the battery and the load. The controller keeps the battery fully charged without over-charging it. When the load is drawing power, the controller allows the charge to flow from the generation source into the battery, the load, or both. When the controller senses that the battery is fully (or nearly fully) charged, it reduces or stops the flow of electricity from the generation source, or diverts it to an auxiliary or "shunt" load (most commonly an electric water heater).

Many controllers will also sense when loads have taken too much energy from batteries and will stop the flow until sufficient charge is restored to the batteries. This last feature can greatly extend the battery's lifetime.

The cost of controllers generally depends on the ampere capacity at which your renewable system will operate and the monitoring features you want.

Power Conditioning Equipment for Stand-Alone Systems

A photo of an inverter, which is basically a small, beige metal box with a display window on the front and vents on the side.

Inverters condition electricity so that it matches the requirements of the load. Photo credit: Trudy Forsyth

Most electrical appliances and equipment in the United States run on alternating current (AC) electricity. Virtually all the available renewable energy technologies, with the exception of some solar electric units, produce direct current (DC) electricity. To run standard AC appliances, the DC electricity must first be converted to AC electricity using inverters and related power conditioning equipment.

There are four basic elements to power conditioning:

  • Conversion—of constant DC power to oscillating AC power
  • Frequency of the AC cycles—should be 60 cycles per second
  • Voltage consistency—extent to which the output voltage fluctuates
  • Quality of the AC sine curve—whether the shape of the AC wave is jagged or smooth.

Simple electric devices, such as hair dryers and light bulbs, can run on fairly low-quality electricity. A consistent voltage and smooth sine curve are more important for sensitive electronic equipment, such as computers, that cannot tolerate much power distortion.

Inverters condition electricity so that it matches the requirements of the load. If you plan to tie your system to the electricity grid, you will need to purchase conditioning equipment that can match the voltage, phase, frequency, and sine wave profile of the electricity produced by your system to that flowing through the grid.

A series of requirements for grid-interactive inverters have been developed by Underwriters Laboratories, a leading safety-testing and certification organization. These requirements, referred to as UL 1741, apply to power-producing stand-alone and grid-connected renewable energy systems. Either you or your installer should contact your power provider to see which models they accept for grid-connection; most simply require a grid-interactive inverter listed by an organization such as Underwriters Laboratories.

The cost of inverters is affected by several factors, including:

  • Quality of the electricity it needs to produce
  • Voltage of the incoming current
  • AC wattage required by your loads
  • Power required for the starting surge of some equipment
  • Additional inverter features such as meters and indicator lights.

When you size your inverter, be sure to plan for any future additional loads you might have. It is often cheaper to purchase an inverter with a larger input and output rating than you currently need than to replace it with a larger one later.

Batteries for Stand-Alone Systems

Batteries store electricity for use during times that your system is not producing electricity due to resource unavailability. Batteries are most effective when used in wind and photovoltaic systems (variations in hydro resources can be more seasonal in nature, so batteries may be less useful).

A photo of a researcher recording data from a translucent case containing batteries.

Batteries store the electricity produced by your small renewable energy system for later use.

The "deep-cycle" (generally lead-acid) batteries typically used for small systems last five to ten years and reclaim about 80% of the energy channeled into them. In addition, these batteries are designed to provide electricity over long periods, and can repeatedly charge and discharge up to 80% of their capacity. Automotive batteries, which are shallow-cycle (and therefore prone to damage if they discharge more than 20% of their capacity), should not be used.

The cost of deep-cycle batteries depends on the type, capacity, climate conditions under which they will operate, frequency of maintenance, and chemicals used to store and release electricity. Wind or photovoltaic stand-alone system batteries need to be sized to store power sufficient to meet your needs during anticipated periods of cloudy weather or low wind. An inexpensive fossil fuel-powered back-up generator can be used to cover unanticipated or occasional slumps in the renewable resource.

For safety, batteries should be located in a space that is well ventilated and isolated from living areas and electronics, as they contain dangerous chemicals and emit hydrogen and oxygen gas while being charged. In addition, the space should provide protection from temperature extremes. Be sure to locate your batteries in a space that has easy access for maintenance, repair, and replacement. Batteries can be recycled when they wear out.

Safety Equipment for Stand-Alone Systems

A photo of lightning striking, illuminating the dark, night sky.

Lightning strikes and other power surges can severely damage your system without proper precautions. Photo credit: Dave Parsons.

Safety features protect stand-alone small renewable energy systems from being damaged or harming people.

Here are the major safety features your system will need:

  • Safety disconnects
  • Automatic and manual safety disconnects protect the wiring and components of your small renewable energy system from power surges and other equipment malfunctions. They also ensure that your system can be shut down safely for maintenance and repair. In the case of grid-connected systems, safety disconnects ensure that your generating equipment is isolated from the grid, which is important for the safety of people working on the grid transmission and distribution systems.

  • Grounding equipment
  • This equipment provides a well-defined, low-resistance path from your system to the ground to protect your system against current surges from lightening strikes or equipment malfunctions. You will want to ground both your wind turbine or photovoltaic unit itself and your balance-of-system equipment. Be sure to include any exposed metal (such as equipment boxes) that might be touched by you or a service provider.

  • Surge protection
  • These devices also help protect your system in the event that it, or nearby power lines (in the case of grid-connected systems), are struck by lightening.

Meters and Instrumentation for Stand-Alone Systems

A photo of an electric meter contained in a beige metal box with the meter gauges displayed through a glass bowl-like covering.

Meters and other monitoring equipment help you keep track of how your system is performing.

Meters and other instruments allow you to monitor your small renewable energy system's battery voltage, the amount of power you are consuming, and the level at which your batteries are charged, for example.

If you are connecting your system to the electricity grid, you will need meters to keep track of the electricity your system produces and the electricity you use from the grid. Some power providers will allow you to use a single meter to record the excess electricity your system feeds back into the grid (the meter spins forward when you are drawing electricity, and backward when your system is producing it).

Power providers that don't allow such a net metering arrangement require that you install a second meter to measure the electricity your system feeds into the grid.

Operating Your System Off-Grid

A photo of a man standing outside by a photovoltaic module installed on a rock outcropping with a house in background.

Stand-alone systems can be more cost-effective than connecting to the grid in remote locations.

For many people, powering their homes or small businesses using a small renewable energy system that is not connected to the electricity grid—called a stand-alone system—makes economic sense and appeals to their environmental values.

In remote locations, stand-alone systems can be more cost-effective than extending a power line to the electricity grid (the cost of which can range from $15,000 to $50,000 per mile). But these systems are also used by people who live near the grid and wish to obtain independence from the power provider or demonstrate a commitment to non-polluting energy sources.

Successful stand-alone systems generally take advantage of a combination of techniques and technologies to generate reliable power, reduce costs, and minimize inconvenience.