Before anyone decides to move forward with a renewable energy project Montana State University Extension Wind and Transmission Program Director Sarah Hamlen says they need to evaluate their options using the Energy Pyramid. The first thing to consider is energy conservation, then energy efficiency, followed by energy demand and finishing at the top with renewable energy.
But once measures for conservation, efficiency and demand management have been implemented, if the decision is made to install a wind energy system, Hamlen says there are several additional things to consider. For instance, what is an appropriate size? Ultimately she says it's important to work with a qualified installer to determine the proper system size. But Hamlen first suggests using a quick sizing method to provide a starting point for research.
"An easy way to do that is to calculate the total kilowatt hours for the meter you want to roll back," Hamlen said. "When we're talking about grid connected systems we're talking about usually connecting to only one meter. So identify that meter and find what a 12-month period worth of kilowatt hour consumption looks like. You then divide the total by the number of hours in a year, 8,760, which will give you your annual energy load."
Next, take the annual energy load divided by two factors, 0.1 and 0.2. This provides you with two numbers that Hamlen says provide an estimated range of the size needed. This will also help the producer get an idea of the costs that will be associated with the system.
Speaking of costs, there is grant funding available that could help offset the purchase and installation of renewable energy generating systems. The Rural Energy for America Program is available through USDA's Rural Development. Hamlen says many funding sources require an energy audit before grants are secured. Because the audit requirements can vary by program, she says farmers and ranchers need to know what is required and make sure to get an audit that meets those needs when applying for financing.
"If you know what funding sources you want to apply for you should check to see what the energy audit requirements are before you assume that you are going to apply," Hamlen said. "What I've found in working with some rural producers is that they do get an energy audit, but then when they went back to get financing they were not able to universally apply that audit because it wasn't done by a certain type of provider or they didn't cover certain things in the audit."
Hamlen notes many in rural communities are used to being self-sufficient. That's why she's comfortable with the idea of farmers and ranchers doing their own operation and maintenance. She says they may just see that as part of owning a system. However, she says there are some things to keep in mind.
"The first thing you need to know is that you are most likely going to need to climb the tower at least on an annual basis and you are looking at being some distance above the ground," Hamlen said. "A couple of other things that I would look at; if there were a system error or something else that I could not service on my own do I have someone in my area that can help me out. One of the biggest things I've found in small wind operation and maintenance is that if you install it right up front you will most likely be able to reduce a lot of the system operation and maintenance long-term."
Hamlen also notes the importance of getting training so that maintenance is performed safely and in accordance with the warranty or other service agreements associated with the turbine. The bottom line according to Hamlen is that an educated consumer will have the best experience. She says anyone interested in wind energy generation at their home, farm or business should be prepared to learn, ask questions and get informed.
"I find that a lot of times when people start looking at small wind that they assume it's a lot like going to Sears and buying a washer and dryer unit; you go in, you pick out the color you want, you put it in the back yard and voila you're producing your own energy," Hamlen said. "With small wind that's not necessarily the case. There are a lot of variables, there are a lot of variances between different manufacturers and different turbines, especially without a universally applied industry standard at this point, it is very important that a consumer understand what that system is capable of so they have a satisfactory buying experience."
Hamlen says the wind industry is currently working to develop industry standards and test turbines against those newly defined standards.