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Be Your Own Power Plant Right At Home

Personal energy independence! Be your own power plant! Right at home!

That’s the attraction for a small but growing number of American homeowners who are installing small wind turbines to provide their own electricity needs.

Philippe Starck, the famous French designer, is the latest to jump into the personal ecology market, promising to offer wind turbines small enough to fit on house rooftops.

Made with transparent plastic - the same used in his Louis Ghost chairs - they will also be nearly invisible.

Starck's environmentalist credentials pre-date the current green-everything fade - he has a solar-power oyster farm in his homeland - but his timing on the turbines may be right on the money.

Last year close to 10,000 small wind turbines - defined as providing 100 kilowatts or less - were sold in the US, up from 7,000 in the previous year.

That generated $42 million for the predominantly US-based manufacturing industry, which is has about dozen established companies and dozens more start-ups.

Philippe Starck
AP
Philippe Starck

His miniatures turbines -- vertical ones that turn like a corkscrew or barbershop sign, opposed to the more standard horizontal one -- will be launched in the US next year after their debut in France later this year.

His units -- manufactured by the Italian industrial group Pramac -- are expected to retail for under $1,250 and promise to deliver 80 percent of the electricity needed by the average household – roughly 5 kilowatts.

Maybe. Ron Stimmel, the small wind advocate at the American Wind Energy Association, says that while small wind installations are much easier than larger-scale operations (and need far less wind), rooftop installations are “a lot trickier” than most other small installations. (Learn more about wind here.)

To be effective, individual turbines have to put on towers to get them at least 30 feet above nearby rooftops or the tree line. “You can’t just tie them onto your chimney.”

And the towers add substantially - one-third to one-half - to the total cost of systems, which Stimmel says retails from $12,000 on up.

Structural limitations of rooftops explains why turbines on individual home roofs account for just 1 percent of the total small wind turbine market, which itself is 1-2 percent of the total wind market.

More typically, turbines are placed in a yard which is preferably at least an acre, so that wind has a chance "to stretch its legs a bit,” says Stimmel.

So far there are 4,000 households in the US with their own wind power, less than 15 percent of the total small turbine market. Most units, such as the one recently installed at Boston's Logan Airport, are non-residential.

The manufacturer, California-based AeroVironment, , which is mainly a defense contractor, has also been installed units on a new Kettle Foods potato chip factory in Beloit, Wisconsin.

Stimmel is bullish – “there are literally million of sites" where small wind can be installed - but says rebates in such states as New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Colorado, Oregon, California and Arizona are the “huge market driver.”

So how do you know if you have enough wind to support turbines?

The rule of thumb is if you have a good story about wind—if, for instance, you have trouble keeping an umbrella open outside your house—you probably have enough.