What to Know About Installing a Wind Energy System on Your Farm

July 7, 2011

Audio with Sarah Hamlen, Montana State University Extension Wind and Transmission program director (MP3 4.1 MB) Download Windows Media Player. Time: 00:04:23

Before anyone decides to move forward with a renewable energy project, Montana State University Extension Wind and Transmission program director Sarah Hamlen says, they need to evaluate their options using the Energy Pyramid. The first thing to consider is energy conservation, then energy efficiency, followed by energy demand, and finishing at the top with renewable energy.

But once measures for conservation, efficiency, and demand management have been implemented—if the decision is made to install a wind energy system—Hamlen says there are several additional things to consider. For instance, what is an appropriate size? Ultimately she says it's important to work with a qualified installer to determine the proper system size. But Hamlen first suggests using a quick sizing method to provide a starting point for research.

"An easy way to do that is to calculate your total kilowatt hours for the meter that you want to roll back. And when we're talking about grid connected systems, we are talking about usually connecting to only one meter. So identify that meter, and find what a 12-month period worth of kilowatt-hour consumption looks like on that meter. You can then divide that total consumption by the number of hours in a year, 8,760. So we take that annual consumption divided by 8,760 and that will give you your annual energy load."

Next, take the annual energy load divided by two factors: 0.1 and 0.2. This provides you with two numbers that Hamlen says provide an estimated range of the size needed. This will also help the producer get an idea of the costs that will be associated with the system.

Speaking of costs, there is grant funding available that could help offset the purchase and installation of renewable energy generating systems. The Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, is available through USDA's Rural Development. Hamlen says many funding sources require an energy audit before grants are secured. Because the audit requirements can vary by program, she says farmers and ranchers need to know what is required and make sure to get an audit that meets those needs when applying for financing.

"If you know what funding sources you want to apply for, you should check to see what their energy audit requirements are before you assume that you're going to apply. What I have found in working with some rural producers is that they do get an energy audit, but then when they went back to try and get financing, they weren't able to universally apply that audit because it wasn't done by a certain type of provider or they didn't cover certain things in the audit."

Hamlen notes many in rural communities are used to being self sufficient. That's why she's comfortable with the idea of farmers and ranchers doing their own operation and maintenance. She says they may just see that as part of owning a system. However, she says there are some things to keep in mind.

"The first thing you need to know is that you most likely are going to need to climb the tower, at least on an annual basis. And you're looking at being some distance above the ground. A couple of other things that I would look at, if there were a system error or something that happened that I could not service on my own, I might have someone in my area that can help me out. One of the biggest things I've found in small wind operation and maintenance is that if you install it right up-front, you most likely will be able to reduce a lot of the system operation and maintenance long-term. I think you also need to remember that you've got a budget for operation and maintenance, even if you're planning to do it on your own. If you look at your vehicle operation and maintenance, and you realize that even though you know you can change your own oil you never do, you might also apply that to your wind system."

Hamlen also notes the importance of getting training so that maintenance is performed safely and in accordance with the warranty or other service agreements associated with the turbine.

The bottom line, according to Hamlen, is that an educated consumer will have the best experience. She says anyone interested in wind energy generation at their home, farm, or business should be prepared to learn, ask questions, and get informed.

"I find that a lot of times when people start looking at small wind, they assume that it's a lot like going to Sears and buying a washer and dryer unit that you go in, you pick out the color you want, you put it in the backyard, and voilà, you're producing your own energy. With small wind, that's not necessarily the case. There are a lot of variables, there are a lot of variances between different manufacturers and different turbines, and especially without a universally applied industry standard at this point, it's very important that a consumer understand what that system is actually capable of so that they have a satisfactory buying experience."

Hamlen says the wind industry is currently working to develop industry standards and test turbines against those newly defined standards.