Review: Build Your Own Small Wind Power System

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Conversation at the dinner table often becomes too technical for me. My husband and four kids are very math and science-minded, with lots of hands-on experience turning their ideas into something useful.

Many of those discussions turn into real ways to make our small farm operate more efficiently. They’ve created parts that no longer exist for the ancient implements we still use to bale hay, turned old furniture into bathroom cabinets, and reconfigured our home heating system to run entirely on wood (utilizing our acreage full of ash trees killed by emerald ash borer).

I remember a few conversations about wind power after my sons read last year’s geeky inspirational blockbuster, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. At the age of 14, Malawian villager William Kamkwamba built a windmill to generate power for his family using discarded motor parts, PVC pipe, and an old bicycle wheel. His example spurred my family members to consider wind power. They consulted an electrical engineer friend and checked out our area’s average wind speed. They also did all sorts of calculations about net energy output, metal fatigue, and payoff time. But the topic died when other, seemingly more feasible projects grabbed their attention.

So we were delighted to pass around Build Your Own Small Wind Power System by renewable energy experts Keven Shea and Brian Clark Howard. This book is the ultimate resource. It’s useful for anyone around the world interested in renewable DIY energy. It provides the necessary technical information for installing a grid-connected or off-grid system while also answering all conceivable background questions. This 472 page volume is packed with charts, data, and links to help you evaluate your site, learn about government and power company perks, obtain permits and financing, select the right components, troubleshoot and maintain your system, and promote wind-friendly policies. It’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive guide.

Personally I find the sight of wind turbines  to be a heartening example of progress. But to have one built or build it ourselves seemed cost prohibitive until I read this book. The authors ask us to change the way we think about any purchase using (or producing) energy. Some merchandise is priced lower up front (incandescent compared to LED lighting, for example) but the overall cost is greater when energy usage over the product’s lifetime are figured in.  They suggest that items include a projected lifetime energy cost so consumers might have the necessary data to help them make informed purchases. The same case can be made for energy choices.

Permit us to suggest that wind power is a paradigm shift with energy, because the lifetime cost is up-front. Imagine that your power authority moved its conventional utility to every home to produce energy. Imagine having to pay for the fuel and having to deal with the noise, dirt, and air pollution of a coal or gas generator in your garage (in fact, many of our grandparents had to do just that). Then imagine discovering wind power.

We’d all like to become more energy independent. My family would certainly prefer to make a more eco-friendly choice than burning wood. If the discussions this book has sparked are any indicator, the long arms of a wind turbine may some day wave within sight of my back porch.

A review copy was provided for this post.

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8 thoughts on “Review: Build Your Own Small Wind Power System

  1. Interesting post – we’ve considered a small scale wind turbine on our property. Maybe this book will be the tipping point to putting it in.

    On a side note, you might want to fix the spelling mistake in the first sentence of your quoted paragraph. Kind of changes the whole sentence’s meaning.

  2. “Permit us to suggest that wind power is a paradigm shift with energy, because the lifetime cost is up-front.”

    Permission not granted. These things break before can deliver enough power to pay for a fraction of their installation.

    If your family was actually very math and science-minded, you would already know that small-scale wind power is an even more ridiculous notion than large-scale wind power. How many tax-subsidized junk piles does it take to learn?

    This alternate energy silly business cropped up in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s, and now with your assist, we get to go backwards into the 21st Century. No sane person would ever want to live in a place so horrible as to make wind power practical.

    I have 3 suggestions: Read The Man Who Planted Trees.

    Please leave the wildlife unmolested. If you are really so intent on bashing birds, get some chickens and put them in the freezer after your fun.

    Pick up a copy of Wealth of Nations to help your family understand why the division of labor brings prosperity and DIY anti-engineering drives people into frustration and poverty.

    1. I don’t see DIY as anti-engineering in any way.

      Birds are imperiled by exhaust from cars and industry, particularly from the emissions of coal fired energy plants. Even more are killed by collision with glass windows and unfortunate meet-ups with domestic cats.

      I respect your right to disagree. Differing viewpoints make for a lively discussion.

  3. “These things break before can deliver enough power to pay for a fraction of their installation.”

    Hah! That’s a funny assertion in light of the fact that up until 50 years ago, half of rural America took care of much of its energy needs using windmills. (Read Madrigal.)

    Technology has improved a lot since then, and a quality investment repays with quality results. Thousands of 1-megawatt and up windmills installed around the world in 10 years have already proven that this comment is ill-founded.

  4. I think the answer depends on your personal circumstances.
    For a year I worked as a volunteer in a Third World village that had no electricity. A system like William Kamkwamba’s would be a godsend in this type of village. I read of an African villager travelling five hours by bullock cart to a nearby village to recharge his mobile phone. This phone was the only one in the village, and served as the only contact the villagers had with the outside world for things like education and health. I might assure Helen that in my experience, sane people do live in these sorts of places. They have no choice, and they make the very best of what opportunities they have.
    The problem with both wind and solar energy is storage. Storage was not an issue in many of the types of applications mentioned by Tony (mostly water pumping & flour grinding). These tasks were not time critical, and it was OK if the water wasn’t pumped for the flour wasn’t ground when there was no sun or the wind wasn’t blowing. Manyana…
    However if you want to live in the type of world that I suspect Helen wants, with stable electricity available 24/7, solely relying on home wind or solar is fiercely expensive. Relying partially can be fine. I have a solar collector for hot water, and use no electricity for water heating for three months over summer; it supplies about 40% of the water heating for three months in the middle of winter, and proportionately in between. I have solar panels that supply about half my electrical use. I don’t have the storage problem, because the local power authority kindly pays me the same amount for my excess electricity that they charge me for the power when mine isn’t working. The government gave me a grant to put in this system; with their grant it was economical, without their grant it would not have been.
    Does it depend on your personal circumstances?

  5. To Helen Wells,

    Watch the documentary The Fuel Film, wind energy, solar power will all be small parts of the solution to the use of fossil fuels. No one renewable energy source is going to the only solution on its own.

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