Big Market But Big Challenge For Small-Wind Turbine Makers

Small wind turbine makers have seen sales build over the past year, but it's not been without growing pains.

An AeroVironment rooftop turbine installation at Boston's Logan Airport.
Source: AeroVironment
An AeroVironment rooftop turbine installation at Boston's Logan Airport.

Installations of small wind systems—those less than 100 kilowatts (KW) in capacity—grew by 15 percent in 2009.

The potential is huge, possibly as much as $500 billion if you look at putting wind turbines on buildings in the major urban regions of the US, says Mark Sheikhrezai, CEO of Windation Energy Systems, a California-based rooftop wind turbine maker.

“The market is there,” he says. “It’s a matter of having the resources go after it.”

Small-wind turbine technology is one of the oldest forms of renewable energy, with homesteads, ranches and even city homes using windmills to pump water and generate power in the earliest days of electricity use.

“This is essentially the same technology we’ve been using for decades,” says Peter Asmus, analyst with cleantech research firm, Pike Research.

And that may help explain why small-wind manufacturing is such a crowded space.

Hundreds of turbine makers exist worldwide, offering several windmill designs—from smaller versions of the familiar propeller-type windmills, to horizontal helix designs that work at the roof’s edge, to units, like Windation’s, that sit on a rooftop like a large air-conditioning unit.

With so many available choices, small wind-power had fallen behind solar photovoltaic panels in installed capacity.

Solar’s more uniform design has allowed it to achieve scale in building, installation and maintenance, says Pike’s Asmus. “There probably hasn’t been enough [wind systems] out there, so there’s not the support they tend to require,” he says about the crowded small wind market.

One victim of this fragmented marketplace is California’s AeroVironment, which makes wind units along with other high-tech products such as unmanned aircraft to electric vehicle charging stations.

The company mothballed its “Architectural Wind” product in March, after deploying 20 small- wind installations in five years, including one at a Diamond Food’sKettle Foods potato-chip plant in Wisconsin.

“It wasn’t the right time for the market and for the idea,” says Steve Gitlin, the firm’s director of marketing strategies, adding they “could have sold more” and the company may revisit the product in the future.

But part of AeroVironment’s challenge—and that of the small-wind, power market overall—is that it’s really split into urban and suburban niches, each with unique technological solutions.

The best designs for urban rooftop wind-power generation, where winds blow at variable speeds and directions around other buildings, are not the same as those for open, suburban area generation, where winds blow more consistently and in one direction.

Just shrinking down the iconic windmills seen in windfarms across the country and bolting them on a roof won’t help in the urban environment, says Bil Becker, CEO of Illinois-based wind turbine design firm Aerotecture International.

But engineers go with what they know, he says. “It has a lot to do with the propeller being held as a worshipped item,” he says.

“There’s a definite live and pleasant market for suburban wind,” says Windation’s Sheikhrezai, where using smaller versions of propeller-type windmills will work. He expects that to grow.

For the urban wind market that his and Becker’s firms focus on, “it’s a brand new market,” he says, and so a lot of people are still racing to come up with new concepts.

An Aerotecture turbine near Chicago.
Source: Aerotecture International
An Aerotecture turbine near Chicago.

This new frontier in urban wind means better data about very localized wind resources are needed in order for the market to grow, says Pike’s Asmus. Such data are readily available for solar power professionals.

But while solar may have gotten the jump on small-wind power, top line costs for rooftop solar and small wind are still similar.

Windation’s 5-kilowatt (KW) system retails for $30,000, while others run between $25,000 and $80,0000. Solar photovolataic systems cost $10,000/KW, as a rule of thumb.

Pike’s Asmus points out that federal tax credits once available only to solar are now also available to small-wind energy systems. States are also including these small-wind power systems in their mandates for consumer-generated power – called distributed generation.

This helps level the playing field for small-wind production, Asmus says, and could spur the market’s growth.

For their part, neither Sheikhrezai nor Becker see their urban rooftop designs as competing with solar. Rather, they see them working alongside solar panels, sharing building transmission systems and using parts of a rooftop not suited for solar.

“I’m not sure we can ever be as big as rooftop solar,” says Becker, given the sheer volume of square footage of rooftop space. “But it can be complementary.”

Whatever the technology of choice, the small wind power industry certainly has a lot of room to grow.

The American Wind Energy Association’s announced 2009 small-wind market growth added 20 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity across the country. But compare that to 2009’s large-scale wind energy installed capacity—typically built using 1-2MW wind turbines built in farms of over 50MW—which grew 37 percent and added 9,000MW.

Regardless of whether windmill design dominates its niche or one manufacturer becomes a category killer, AeroVironment’s Gitlin says the winning design needs to be easy to install, maintain and use, and the economics need to work for wide adoption.

“More often that not, when it comes down to writing a check, people want some kind of consistent return,” he says.