PEI farmer will make potatoes and power

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND - Looking for a way to help the environment, PEI potato farmer Randy Visser hit upon an idea. His farming operation uses large amounts of electricity to cool, wash and sort potatoes, so he decided one way to help the planet would be to generate some of his own power.

That's why he's installing a wind turbine, with a top capacity of 50 kilowatts, or enough to meet the needs of about 16 homes when it's running full-tilt. It will allow him to cut his electricity purchases by a third to a half, depending on the strength of the gusts, using a non-polluting power source.

"This is a way of reducing our environmental footprint," says Mr. Visser, who adds that he likes "the idea of being sustainable."

When it comes to wind energy, most attention has been focused on large-scale wind farms, collections of huge turbines that tower over the countryside and pump large amounts of electricity into the grid.

Many of these machines are massive, with a capacity of two megawatts and more, dozens of times larger than Mr. Visser's.

But there is also growing public interest in backyard-scale wind turbines, smaller machines that can allow a cottage to go off the grid, a home to meet some of its electricity needs, or a farm to create some of its own power.

There are about 300 small wind turbines installed in residences across the country, and 70 to 80 of an intermediate size capable of handling the larger needs of farms or small businesses, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association, an Ottawa-based industry lobby group.

Sean Whittaker, association vice-president, says whenever officials of the group speak to public audiences or attend trade shows, they're swamped by people keen to have independence from the grid by installing their own turbines. "The consumer interest in small wind is astounding," Mr. Whittaker says.

The association has been fielding so many inquiries from would-be backyard wind enthusiasts that last November it published on its website, at https://www.smallwindenergy.ca, a how-to guide, explaining the ins and outs of wind turbines for homeowners and businesses.

The lure of having a backyard turbine isn't immediate financial savings, because there aren't any. Wind power currently is a proposition that costs money.

The main reason people install the turbines is to make a personal effort, like Mr. Visser, to reduce the environmental impact of the power they use, or to have independence from the power grid.

Mr. Whittaker estimates that a backyard residential turbine costing about $5,000 will probably produce electricity at about 20 to 25 cents a kilowatt hour, or more than double typical utility rates. (One kilowatt hour is the amount of juice that would keep a light bulb rated 100 watts running for 10 hours.)

While wind produces energy at a steep price, Mr. Whittaker estimates it's about half the cost of electricity from solar panels, a technology with which backyard wind turbines compete.

Mr. Visser anticipates that his business-scale turbine, costing about $190,000, will pay for itself in 10 to 12 years, after which the power "is going to be really low-cost relative to what we'd be paying for from the grid."

The association would like to boost interest in intermediate-sized turbines - those with capacities from 10 kilowatts to 100 kilowatts and capable of powering small businesses or small communities - because Canada has the potential to become a world leader in their production.

A large number of the world's top 10 manufacturers of these medium-sized machines are based in Canada, including Entegrity Wind Systems Inc. in Prince Edward Island, √Čnergie PGE in Quebec, Atlantic Orient Canada Inc. in Nova Scotia and Wenvor Technologies Inc. in Ontario.

"If you promote this segment, then we can see in 10 to 15 years that Canada will be a world leader in this mid-range system in the same way that Denmark and Germany are leaders right now in the large systems," Mr. Whittaker says.

For those interested in installing turbines, the association guide offers some practical advice. It says there may be municipal zoning restrictions on the height of towers and requirements for setbacks from property lines. Towers should be far enough away from other properties and buildings that, were they to fall over, they wouldn't topple onto neighbouring land.

Another tip is that it is almost always cheaper to save electricity than to generate it, so anyone thinking of installing a turbine for a home or business should first try to cut power consumption through conservation measures.

The wind blows more strongly higher up than at ground level, leading to the advice to install the tallest tower possible for a turbine. This is important for homeowners, who are stuck with the wind speeds on their property, unlike utilities, which can scout for the windiest sites in the country for making power.

"We always say that putting a small turbine on too short a tower is like putting a solar panel in the shade," Mr. Whittaker says.



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