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Wind blowing can make your electricity meter spin backward

By Anne Eisenberg  /  NY Times News Service , NEW YORK

An Energy Ball turbine spins in an undated photo. Rooftop turbines send electricity they generate straight to a home’s circuit box, reducing utility bills while using a renewable resource.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Wind turbines typically spin from tall towers on hills and plains. But in these green times, some companies hope smaller turbines will soon rise above a more domestic spot: homes and garages.

The rooftop turbines send the electricity they generate straight on to the home’s circuit box. Then owners in a suitably wind-swept location can watch the needle on their electricity meter turn backward instead of forward, reducing their utility bills while using a renewable resource.

One new model, the Swift Wind Turbine, is designed to do its job quietly, said Dave Anderson, co-director of Renewable Devices in Edinburgh, which has partnered with Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to offer the turbine in the US.

“The noisiest it gets is 35 decibels,” roughly the sound of a quiet conversation, he said of the whir of the blades.

The turbine, which looks like a large wagon wheel, has a ring around its blades designed to diffuse noise and limit vibration.

“The air is steered toward the diffuser ring and dispersed, rather than leaving the blades with a ripping noise,” Anderson said.

The turbine costs US$10,000 to US$12,000 including installation, said Michael Ford, manager of the renewable energy business unit at Cascade Engineering. When the wind is blowing briskly at 48kph or more, it will generate 1.5 kilowatts of electrical power, he said. Enough, for instance, to run fifteen 100-watt light bulbs.

“You need a strong average wind speed,” he said, recommending that prospective customers make careful measurements before they buy.

“Don’t trust your memories about the wind power around your house,” he said. “People always remember when it’s windy,” but forget about the lulls.

Residents may measure wind speed with an anemometer, often available for rent, as well as by entering their address at the Swift Web site, which has listings of average wind speeds for localities.

The Swift turbine starts contributing electricity when the wind blows at 12kph; as the wind speed increases, so does turbine output, Ford said. Over a year, the energy output in windy locations should be roughly 2,000 kilowatt hours, he said, so that for homes that use 11,000 kilowatt hours in a year, for instance, electricity costs would be reduced by about 18 percent.

Kenneth Benefiel of Conklin, Michigan, bought a Swift turbine last fall, and had it installed on his 150-year-old post-and-beam barn, which serves as a garage and workroom, in time for Christmas.

“I had already switched to energy efficient appliances,” he said, reducing electricity usage by a third by buying a more efficient freezer and refrigerator and changing to fluorescent light bulbs. “The turbine was the next step.”

Benefiel, a retired carpenter, said that in the first five weeks after its installation, the turbine produced about 60 kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power his house for about three days. The machine is quiet, but the old building on which it is mounted does its share of groaning in a stiff wind, he said.

So far, he is satisfied with his purchase.

“The turbine will conserve energy,” he said. “It’s making us more self-sufficient, and we’re doing our part to cut consumption. You have to think not only about saving money, but about saving resources.”

Turbines must be placed well above the roof to benefit from wind energy, said Sander Mertens in Voorburg, the Netherlands, who is a consultant in wind energy and author of Wind Energy in the Built Environment.

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