Dennis Williams was having problems last week with a wind turbine in rural Garretson, S.D. The turbine, manufactured by a Portland, Ore., company, has been one of the best-performing turbines in the company’s fleet of 1,200 as it sits atop a hill in the rolling grasslands west of Garretson.
Although the owner, who didn’t want to be identified, was missing out on a lot of energy production because of blustery conditions, Williams said it’s an example of what can happen when farmers or rural residents install wind turbines on their properties: It sometimes might need maintenance.
Having a local company install the system and having an American-made turbine are two selling points that Williams, the lead technician and project manager for Cleaner Greener Energies of Sioux Falls, discusses when he does a site assessment for property owners thinking of installing a wind, solar or one of the company’s many other renewable energy or conservation products.
“There are some fly-by-night operators out there,” Williams said.
He said that while solar panel systems require minimal maintenance, if any at all, smaller wind turbines occasionally need attention, and a local company is the best way to make sure it can be repaired more quickly and at a lesser expense if the limited warranty has expired.
Williams said some turbines that have made their way into the region from China are simply “junk.”
He knows of a farmer in Nebraska who bought a Chinese wind turbine, and it has blown up twice. Although the producer got it for a cheaper price, it sure didn’t pay off, he said.
Steve Wegman, an analyst with the South Dakota Renewable Energy Association of Rapid City, S.D., agreed. He said there are some bad turbines out on the market.
“But buying a machine is easy. Only buy those certified by the Small Wind Council,” he said. The organization is a nonprofit group.
“It’s like buying anything else. Go check out what the neighbor has before you buy. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Wegman said.
South Dakota’s growth in farm and small-business wind turbine installations has been “phenomenal” in the past two years, Wegman said.
He estimated there are probably about 150 such systems in the state, including 15 school districts that have turbines. That’s in addition to the 482 large wind turbines constructed to date in the state, which is ranked No. 4 in wind potential in the United States.
Currently, about 22 percent of South Dakota’s energy comes from wind, which ranks it No. 1 in the nation percentage-wise, according to South Dakota Public Utilities Commission chairman Chris Nelson. Iowa is not far behind.
Williams said eastern South Dakota especially has some of the best wind in the nation, partially because it’s close to the wind-rich Buffalo Ridge in Minnesota, where a series of large wind farms are located.
Nelson said the utilities commission would like to see more small turbines on farms.
However, he said the commission’s stance when asked is that a producer should be very careful when installing a system because “sometimes they may not save you the money you think you’re going to.”
“However, if somebody wants to experiment with it and see what it will do or wants to learn more about renewable energy or believes in it, we say go ahead and do it. But if you do it solely because you’re going to save money, push the pencil hard and make sure you know what the numbers are going to be.”
Nelson said the commission doesn’t require permits and usually isn’t contacted about smaller wind turbine systems. He said he wasn’t aware of any complaints yet about “fly-by-night” wind turbine operators, but he said the commission has had a few calls from people who were “oversold” the performance level of their turbines.
Williams, who sells about 50 percent of his renewable energy systems to ag producers, said that when he’s doing a site assessment, he can usually come within 5 percent or less of what the turbine will produce for electricity by doing research and through his years of experience with such systems.
A lot of things affect energy production, such as wind speeds on the farm, location, trees and elevation. He uses a wind mapping company in his research to get a more accurate number.
Other turbine considerations
Other considerations when planning a smaller wind turbine system on the farm include:
• Permits: Though the Public Utilities Commission doesn’t get involved in smaller turbine systems, local governments often do. It can take months for permits to be obtained, and many have no idea what to do because they haven’t dealt with it before.
• Selling back electricity: The federal government requires utilities to buy back excess electricity from turbines. Although some producers simply want to cover their own utility bills or have a backup in case of a power outage by storing excess electricity in a battery pack, many want to help their return on investment by selling back electricity produced.
In Minnesota, there is a “net metering” rule under which a person is paid back at the retail rate for power returned into the grid.
South Dakota has no such rule and is one of only about eight states without some type of net metering rules. South Dakota utilities do pay back some for power fed back into the grid, but it’s less than half of the retail rate, Williams said.
Nelson doesn’t foresee South Dakota going to a net metering rule.
“It simply shifts the costs to everybody else in the electric grid, other than those that have the wind generators. I think the prevailing atmosphere here is that it’s just flat not right. I guess I know if you have it, it makes more sense economically for the turbine owner,” he said.
Williams said the incentive of net metering is one reason Minnesota is a hotter market for small turbine systems.
• Financial help: Williams said that although they can drag out the length of a project, federal and state incentives are available to help producers install systems. The USDA, through its REAP program, can help pay for 20 percent to 25 percent of the costs of a project. Williams said his firm has grant writing to help those interested. There is also a 30 percent federal tax credit, depending on income, that runs through 2014 to help with the finances.
• Time required: Williams tells customers it usually takes four to six months from when a person decides he wants a wind turbine until it’s online. He said the fastest one he did was two months. But the roadblocks can involve permitting, testing of the soil where the turbine will stand, designing and selecting the right foundation and system, putting in the foundation and letting it cure for a month, waiting for the system to arrive from the manufacturer, assembling the turbine and tower and wiring for the computerized systems that often operate the turbine and monitor its performance. Then the utility has to get involved if electricity is being sold back.
• Payback: Williams, who stands by his assessments, said the average payback time for a system is seven to 12 years, but that’s at today’s electric rates. He said there’s a 50-year track record of rates going up regularly, and more increases are likely as new Environmental Protection Agency rules put more pressure on utilities. For example, he said some rural electric associations already have increases slated for years ahead.
Wegman said there probably would be more machines if South Dakota’s rates were higher, as it ranks in the lower tier of electric costs. Places such as Texas, California, Illinois and New England have much higher rates.
• Warranties: Many turbines have 10-year limited warranties, Williams said. He also likes to work with companies in the U.S. that have track records and are financially stable.
• Technology level: Systems also are now more high-tech. Williams can check on systems to make sure they are operating correctly by checking on his laptop or his smart phone. He can track down any problems and have them fixed quickly.
• What to buy: Williams said wind turbines make more sense if a producer is a larger user of electricity and, for example, has high livestock operational costs such as hog barn ventilation systems or larger grain drying operations. He said if a farmer has more electrical use in the winter, wind turbines are a good option as the wind blows more in the winter than in the summer in South Dakota.
Solar a better option? However, for smaller operators, sometimes solar can be a better option, and Williams said the equipment involved is probably at its lowest cost since the newer systems were first on the market.
“The price has really come down a lot,” he said.
South Dakota ranks 14th among states in the nation in potential use of solar power.
“We are better than Hawaii, or if you look overseas where they have a lot of solar power in Germany, we rank higher,” Williams said.
“And the systems are as close to zero maintenance as you can get,” he said. “There are no moving parts.”
Williams said the biggest maintenance can involve brushing snow off the glass panels. Many of the glass panels are strong enough now, too, to resist damage from small hail.
He also said ground-mounted solar panels are the best option and a bigger producer of power because they can design them so they face true south with the exact angle to maximize production. Another reason is there is more ventilation around ground-mounted models, keeping them cooler and making them run more efficiently.
On rooftop solar panels, the roofs often are designed in a way that prevents the best angle and optimal ventilation. Also, on some older farm homes, trees can get in the way because they often were planted on the south side to provide shade in an era when there was no air conditioning.
Solar panels, he said, have about a five-year workmanship warranty and 25-year performance warranties.
“Forty years later, however, some panels can still be performing,” he said.
With a lower cost, a good-sized, ground-mounted solar panel can produce about 13,300 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. By comparison, a wind turbine can produce about 32,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, but of course it costs more.
Williams said the same technology can be used on solar panel systems as for wind turbines. He can check and pinpoint a problem even if only one panel isn’t working at capacity.
Ground-mounted panels also no longer require a concrete base as there is a method developed by a company in Georgia that involves placing them in the ground with a system like a “giant screw,” Williams said.
Combinations of solar and wind also can be an attractive option, Williams said.
Other renewable options
Williams said other smaller products can provide a big boost on farms and ranches, too, to lower electricity use.
He said power efficiency units can be installed to reduce bills as much as 15 percent. Those are mostly for larger operations.
Williams also has designed a solar system for the lift station of a tiling system in Minnesota that has ended up being a net zero investment.
Battery packs that store energy from solar or wind turbines also can provide backup power during outages or can be installed on energy systems in the home, such as for a sump pump in case of bad storms.
One of the most cost-effective systems is domestic heating of water powered by solar.
“Imagine a garden hose lying in the hot sun. It’s the same concept applied to the technology for solar thermal panels used in the solar hot water systems,” Williams said.
He also has installed a solar-powered remote livestock watering tank system that was a half-mile from a utility power line. For the same cost as the utility running power to the waterers, he installed the solar system. The advantage: There never was a utility bill after that.
And for many people looking at undergoing projects, that’s a huge plus side.