About 4 years ago my friend Mook and I thought it would be cool to research and build “something” together. We didn’t know exactly what to build at the time. We knew that it should be something evolutionary (rather than revolutionary), something anyone with the right tools, materials, and basic handyman skills could build, and something that would save money while being considerate of the environment. We settled on a backyard wind turbine.
The First Steps
The answer, though it took us a while to land on it, is actually quite simple. For a traditional homeowner to reduce their dependence on “the grid” there are a relatively few things that one can do.
The first step, of course, is to reduce demand. I did this by only buying Energy Star appliances and electronics, replacing my lights with CFLs and LEDs, turning off lights and equipment when not in use, setting the AC up a couple degrees (with the wife-factor we landed on 77 degrees F during the day and 79 during the night), and opening windows whenever possible to either let cool air in or hot air out.
It’s important to clarify that no device and “make” energy. Matter and energy have always existed in various forms, and can neither be created nor destroyed (so says the Caloric Theory of the Law of Conservation of Energy, and as Scotty said
“Yea can’nae change the laws of physics, Jim!”).
I’m not going to refer to “making energy” or “generating power,” because that’s simply a violation of the laws of physics. It also helps set the tone of the next section.
When trying to reduce your dependence on “the grid” (or anything/anyone else, for that matter) you have to work with what’s available to you. Just like the farmer who can only grow certain types of crops in his climate if he wants to reap a bountiful harvest, different locations will net different results. Potato farmers like the climate in Idaho, apple farmers like the climate in Washington, citrus farmers like the climate in Southern California, etc. Why? Because they have adapted what crops they grow to the climate in order to maximize their harvest.
So, since we can’t “make” our own power, how do we go about “harvesting” the power that’s already around us?
Generally speaking people can “harvest” power:
- from the sun
- via photovoltaic panels which convert sunlight into DC power, or
- via thermal collectors which capture the sunlight and convert it into heat for heating water or air,
- from the earth
- via “earth batteries” (though this isn’t very efficient)
- via high-temperature geothermal heat (to heat spaces or, more typically, to heat water and spin turbines)
- via a low-temperature geothermal heat-pump to draw the relatively consistent temperature from tens of feet under the ground into a living space
- from the wind
- via “propellers” that spin a turbine and coverts the rotational energy into electricity (AC or DC) or into mechanical rotation (aka “mills” or pumps)
- via heat dissipation using heat-sinks to draw heat out of an area into a transfer medium, which is then dissipated into the air
- from the water
- via falling or moving water spinning a turbine and converting the rotational energy into electricity (usually AC) or into mechanical rotation (aka “mills” or pumps)
- via heat dissipation using heat-sinks to draw heat out of an area into a transfer medium, which is then dissipated into the water
- from a chemical reaction
- via burning something (wood, gas, oil, coal) and heating liquid to turn a turbine which is then converted into electricity (usually AC)
- via burning something to force a mechanical action (i.e., internal combustion)
- via transferring electrons from one metal to another metal in a substance, usually an acid liquid (usually DC)
I’m probably missing some processes for converting some energy into another, but you get the idea.
The task now becomes, based on your location and circumstances which set of “energy crops” will provide you with the best “harvest?”
I picked wind, to start.
Why a wind turbine, you ask?
I live in Northern Utah, just East of the Great Salt Lake. The wind that we get is fairly inconsistent and is usually either gusts of high-speed, or generally low speed. Picking wind to “harvest” in my area is a fairly poor choice when you consider that we have fairly clear, unobstructed skies which would lend photovoltaic solar as a better choice.
I opted to start small with solar: 5W panels to power attic fans and recharge batteries, rather than large hundred+plus watt panels. My roof doesn’t lend itself to collecting solar due to the way it’s pitched, so my options for solar really are solar thermal (for heating water, which is on the agenda) and photovoltaic on a pole in the backyard (also on the agenda).
The problems here are that those are relatively expensive to get started with. That shouldn’t be the only deciding factor to you, and it wasn’t for me.
The winter days in Utah are almost universally overcast, which is not good for trying to convert sunlight into electricity. The upside is that we typically get somewhat blustery days and gusty nights. Which isn’t ideal for wind power, but it follows with my plan. Yes, there is a method to the madness:
- Where I live, when the sun isn’t shining, it’s usually fairly windy.
- When it’s windy there is a much higher likelihood of the grid power going out.
- When it’s cold and miserable outside, most people want to be inside.
- When people are inside they usually want to – and may need to – have power.
Those are the main reasons. The secondary reasons are simple: putting up a backyard wind turbine is much cheaper and easier to do (in my opinion) than solar. You can easily set one up yourself for under $300 and have power when you need it – if the wind is blowing.
My tertiary reasons are a bit superfluous, but I’ll mention them anyway:
- Wind turbines are more visible than solar panels, they have a certain mystique — people can’t help look, myself included.
- Wind turbines have a history that goes beyond irrigating the great plains and “de-swamping” the lowlands in Europe, and are a deserving part of
- Wind turbines are easy to make, they’re cheap, and they can be made with stuff that would otherwise be thrown out (broken treadmills, extra drain pipe, extra water pipe, etc.).
That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Why is this post so long?
This is a post that I’ve been working on for years (literally). There has been a lot of thought that’s gone into the decisions that I’ve made (your decisions will be based on your individual set or circumstances and objectives, which, of course, they should).
I’ve also prototyped one wind turbine already to “get the hang of it.” It didn’t convert much wind into electricity however, why? Well, let’s just say, we figured out why the treadmill wasn’t working: the motor was shot.
I’ve got almost all the parts I need either at home, ordered, on their way, or reserved for “phase two” and am ready to start building the darn thing.
Obviously, this is the first post in a series, so here’s what you can expect in the (hopefully) not too distant future.
What comes next?
As I complete each step I’ll link up the following items to their respective pages for your convenience (and may change things up a bit in the process).
- What kind of energy should I harvest? (this article)
- City ordinance and neighborhood considerations
- Installing the tower base
- Building and securing the tower
- Building and installing the wind turbine
- Wiring up the electrical connections
- Preventing “reverse flow”
- Regulating and controlling the charge
- Dump Loads
- Mook, for inspiring me to action
- Brett, for bouncing ideas off
- My wife and family, for putting up with “crazy dad”
- Syracuse City Ordinance Department, for helping us through the red tape
- theKevDog, for detailing his project
- Vela Creations, for publishing their plans
- Larry Lawrence, Jr., for detailing his projects (especially regarding cutting blades)
- Ed Lenz, for being the guy that piqued my curiosity when I went looking for vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWTs) and for coming up with the “Lenz Turbine 2” design (which I plan on building later)