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Generating your own power – Wind

January 13, 2010

So, Wellington is a windy place, right? And if we’re flat out interested in energy efficiency we can go a step further than merely buying low-watt bulbs, or turning off lights when you leave the room, or putting on socks instead of turning the heater up, by generating your own power.

This old idea absolutely fascinates me.

What I figure is this. My household used around 6400 kWh of electricity last year, and that amount was elevated on account of washing nappies and running a shallow bath for the wee man every day (it was also an extremely cold winter). This means that we run and average of about 18kWh through the meter every day. Fortunately we’ve been in an apartment all year, with decent insulation, hardly any windows, and no real drafts. All the same, if I could have found a way to knock down the power bill I would have. After all, the ~$1600 we spent is nothing to sniff at, right?

Not being anywhere near running water (although we could have cheated and run a small hydro scheme in the bathroom, with all that free potable water the city provides), our options are pretty limited. Ignoring the fact that we’re in the apartment (the move to the suburbs impends), we can either run a wind turbine, hang some solar panels out for all those sunny days – I’m not joking there, Wellington has more sunshine hours per year than Auckland – or perhaps set up a bicycle with a generator (you can get up to 300w per hour, not bad really).

So I started thinking seriously about wind, and to my surprise it actually seems financially viable. The first thing I did was consider the resource. Why opt for wind?

Well, Wellington is a windy place. Using the handy table generator over at NIWA I was able to download a table containing daily windspeed and wind direction at the Kelburn station for the years 2000 – 2008. The figures I obtained were very similar to those presented at Wind Finder, with average windspeed siting around 16 or 17 metres per second year round. With the NIWA figures I drew up the following graph.

Windspeeds Wellington, 2000-2008

What this fancy box and whisker graph tells us is how strong the majority of Wellington’s winds are. As you can see, the boxes (which mark 50% of all wind) consistently sit above 10m/s or 36km/hr. Now with most models of wind turbine requiring a minimum of 2.5m/s to activate you’re going to think you’ll have no trouble with an idle fan.

In fact, the more I investigated it the trouble with Wellington isn’t so much the absence of wind, but the abundance of it. Many turbines are rated to hurricane+ speeds 60m/s, and the windiest it gets here is a little about 40m/s (about 140km/hr). But that amount of very high wind actually places a fair amount of stress on a turbine, something we’ll return to.

So. How much power can all this lovely wind generate for us?

The short answer is that it depends on the model. As I said, our power consumption was around 6400kWh last year, well below the ‘typical’ consumption of 8000kWh. This means we’d need a turbine that could make a decent dent in that usage, and drop it low enough to make the savings offset the cost of whatever turbine we need.

It was then I started phoning power companies, and what I discovered was very interesting. There seems to have been a slight shift here in New Zealand and the companies have started allowing what are called ‘import-export’ meters. What this does is allow you to import power from your local supplier. But, if you have a generator, you are also allowed to export power back out to the grid! Awesome. In principle this means that if you have a turbine going, and nothing switched on in the house, you can actually watch the metre turning backwards. Then when the metre reader turns up, hey presto! They might actually owe you money!!

Naturally… it isn’t that simple.

The first people I emailed were Contact Energy, who eventually informed me that they’ll buy my power for 17c a kWh. And they’ll also sell me power for whatever the cost of my plan is. If this is 17c then great. If not, then I lose a little.

The next people I spoke to were Meridian, and they informed me that they don’t bring in cost. They have a 1 for 1 approach, where my kWh is taken off the meter directly. And that I found pretty interesting. Essentially, If I have a 26c per kWh plan (which is what we’ve been using), then I’m ‘saving’ 26c every time my turbine generates a kWh.

At this point the calculations started. What’s great about wind is that it can potentially generate power 24 hours a day. You can be lying in bed at 3am and know that all the fresh air out there is making you money. Even better, it averages that production out across the entire year. You can run the meter backwards during our windy summers, and forwards during the power-hungry winters. The trick of course is getting the right sized turbine for your place.

So, how big to go? Turbines, like anything, come in different sizes and quality. Wellington being Wellington I figured we’d need something pretty heavy duty, otherwise maintenance would become an issue. And if we have to maintain we lose our offset costs to a repairman. Worse still, we might have to replace it.

One turbine I saw was a 1.25kWh job. Designed for the Shetlands, and looked like it was built by Soviets.

So let’s say we get around about 80% efficiency per day (perhaps it isn’t windy enough all day, or it only runs slowly). This will turn out around 25kWh, and a whopping 9075kWh annually!!

This is though, from looking at our wind graph above Wellington has wind in excess of 5m/s over 95% of the time, so we can pretty much guarantee ourselves the 80%. The sensible thing then was to work out the appropriate sized turbine. What I did was compare 4 different sizes: the big 3.5kWh boys you’d use if you lived out on a lifestyle block (but still had connection to the grid), the 1.25kWh job, and a more modest 1kWh and 800Wh models.

Potential kWh generation from wind turbines - Wellington

As you can see, the amount of power generated can be pretty big. The totals for each model are:

  • 3.5kWh – 25410kW
  • 1.25kWh – 9075kW
  • 1kWh – 7060kW
  • 800Wh – 5808kW

Which leaves me wondering – assuming my calculations are correct (and I stand to be corrected), then a modest 800kWh turbine could be just the thing. The price should come in under $10k, and the savings at the current price of electricity (taking into account the almost 6% annual rise in power we’ve been experiencing), I should be able to recoup around $1400 of my power bill per year.

That’s a pretty snappy repayment. Perhaps 6 or 7 years, and far better than solar power.

And at that, I have to admit why I wouldn’t do it.

For starters, getting council approval for anything even the tiniest bit unusual in Wellington is, by all accounts, a freaking nightmare. Most turbines need to sit on a 10 or 15m high pole, and that’s something every NIMBY in the world will complain about. But assuming you actually get the thing up in the air, and enjoying all that sweet, sweet free energy?

Noise. Turbines are really seriously noisy. Really noisy. They recommend that you don’t have them within a 100m of your dwelling to be on the safe side. Now, when you closest neighbour is likely to be about 3m away from your property line, you’re sunk. Enough complaining and the council could actually try to take your $10k turbine away, permanently.

Then there’s the noise for you. That 3am enjoyment could actually be, “WTF! This turbine is putting out 50 decibels, almost 24hours a day!” FYI, that’s the volume of a noisy office conversation, outside your bedroom, in the middle of the night.

Worse, in high speeds they can put out something like 85decibels – a fire alarm, or siren.

So maybe on the farm. Otherwise? Idea kaput.

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12 comments

  1. When I heard you were thinking about wind power, I immediately flashed back to the last domestic wind turbine I’d seen. It was attached to a caravan out in the wopwops off Moonshine Road near the Hutt – hippies. I was cycling past – hippy. The thing that struck me about it was that it was going like billy-o, and jesus christ you could hear it from a long way away. Like, about two bends down the road, we were going “Hey, what’s that odd noise?” Definitely not something I’d want right next to my house. Or, god forbid, on it.

    To be honest, I think that sonics (and specifically subsonics) are the only real objection to windmills. I’m informed you can feel the rumble from the big wind turbines for a very, very long way (over a kilometre).


  2. You do realise that the Kelburn NIWA figures for windspeed are a bit dodgy? They’re taken from the top of the MetOffice in the Botanic Gardens, which is about as exposed as you can get in the central basin.


    • yup. but they accord with much of wellington, especially newlands, which is where we’re moving too…


  3. It’s happened in Wellington already

    Worse yet is the case of New Zealand’s Graham Chiu. He posted a message on the awea list in mid 2000 announcing the data from a free noise test courtesy of the Wellington City Council. The measurement was the result of a complaint by a neighbor that Chiu’s Air 403 was too noisy. It was. Measured 60 feet (18 m) from the turbine in light winds the noise control officer recorded an L10 of 54 dBA. Since this exceeded the permitted 45 dBA, Chiu was ordered to shut off the turbine–permanently. Violation of the order could cost him as much as NZ$200,000 in fines. The installer was to remove the turbine, but he has yet to do so.

    .

    It’s a pity, but we can’t escape reality, at least not while living in the city…


  4. Bearing in mind the constraints of land-based windfarms and the pressure of nimbyism the UK’s recently announced plans for a massive 25GW of offshore windfarms. A mere snip at only £75b.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/08/uk-offshore-windfarms-100bn

    (Map at bottom of article)

    I wonder if our continental shelf is as shallow as Britain’s, though. And of course we don’t have £75b.


  5. It’s a pity but keep an eye on these sort of guys – the Aussie install site shows how expensive they are at the moment but they’ll come down in price and they go a long way towards fixing the noise problem
    http://www.quietrevolution.co.uk/index.htm#

    Meantime, don’t forget the good old wetback for ya hot water or, as a Seatounite I know installed, solar water roof panels hooked up to pipes under the floor slab pushed through by a quiet efficient electric pump. Radiant heat is the best.


    • that underfloor one is pretty good. we could do with something like that off the pellet heater we’re looking at.

      might have to get creative on the radiant heating front.


  6. I’m not sure about your orientation re sun, but by far the most economical home renewable energy device is solar hot water. Tiny outlays compared to turbines/PV, no moving parts (except maybe a pump, standard/cheap), no noise, no conversion losses, can be designed to be movable. There’s a range of technologies to suit pricepoints sub-1k (used copper collector system) to maybe 10K-ish (professionally installed evacuated tube and such). Only issues really are access to the tank & potential for plumbing mishaps. And it does need sunshine!


  7. Check the noise of those pellet heaters, I’ve heard that some models make quite a roar.
    The solar panels that heated the underfloor in Seatoun were about 800mm square roughly each per med size room ie two for the lounge and one per other rooms on the ground floor.

    The underfloor radiant systems are usually natural gas heating through special pipes just under the slab surface – expect to pay at least another 5 grand on top of yer slab price and, if one was using nat gas, EXPENSIVE to run.


  8. Interesting read — I have a friend in the whiteware repair business who has hundreds of washing machine motors just kicking around. I’ve been giving some thought to slapping a fan on one and hooking it up to some batteries and attaching it to the deck…maybe power a small lamp? a toaster? a PC? – I haven’t done any homework yet but have we heard of anyone else doing this?

    I wouldn’t worry about the noise either, living in Newlands. The sound of jets roaring overhead will drown it out for all but 6 hours a day. 😉


  9. Steveo – this is the link

    http://www.ecoinnovation.co.nz/c-49-diy-wind.aspx

    This guy pioneered the smartdrive being used as a generator and he runs this lodge up Taranaki way.Think he’s an engineer expat English.


  10. It’s a pity the noise issue is restrictive.
    Otherwise, it’d probably be a boom industry for somewhere like Wellington.



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