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Small wind turbines have less generating capacity than the huge commercial turbines found on wind farms, but their reduced costs and added versatility allow wind power to be used in a wider set of applications. These small turbines are used primarily for distributed generation – generating electricity for use on-site, rather than transmitting energy over the electric grid from central power plants or wind farms. Small turbines are a small-scale alternative to solar panels, providing clean renewable energy to rural homes, farms and businesses. This reduces reliance on large fossil-fuel power plants and lowers the burden on the electrical transmission grid.
Small wind turbines can have a generating capacity of anywhere from 0.3 to 100 kW, though the amount of power they actually generate depends on wind speed. A small turbine will typically need wind speeds of four meters per second (or nine miles per hour) at the height of the turbine. Because steady wind speed is important, small turbines must be placed away from buildings, trees, and other obstructions that may block the flow of wind. This makes them ideal for rural and suburban communities that do not have the space restrictions found in urban centers.
The United States is the global leader in small turbine manufacturing. Domestic manufacturers reported sales of $115 million in 2011, with 54 percent of that revenue coming from exports. The industry represents an estimated 1,600 full time jobs in the United States. In 2010, the U.S. small wind cumulative capacity was 179 MW, making the United States the world leader in installed capacity, as well. Despite the growing market and robust sales, the small wind industry relies on state and federal policies to drive investment in small wind and to provide certainty for turbine manufacturers.