Wind Power’s Early Adopters Soothe The Conscience, but Save Few Bucks

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Wind Power’s Early Adopters Soothe The Conscience, but Save Few Bucks


Former President George H.W. Bush has one. Jay Leno does, too. So does Maryland Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.

They’ve all got their own personal wind turbines.

These clean-energy contraptions, once the purview of the hemp-and-granola crowd, are fast becoming a status symbol in Hollywood, Washington and places in between. Call them vanity turbines for the high-power set.

They aren’t exactly an energy windfall. The revolutions of such relatively small turbines are so far only a slight evolution toward solving today’s energy needs. But at least a turbine buyer feels better. And it is a little helpful, so why not give it a whirl?

“It puts the power in the hands of the consumer,” says Andy Kruse, vice president of business development for Southwest Windpower Inc., a company based in Flagstaff, Ariz. His company installed small pinwheel-style turbines at Mr. Bush’s vacation compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, Rep. Bartlett’s weekend getaway in the mountains of West Virginia, and an island that airline mogul Richard Branson is developing as a low-carbon test bed.

Wind power was the second-biggest source of electricity capacity added to the U.S. last year, trailing only natural gas, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Even with that gale-force growth, wind power accounts for only about 1% of all electricity generated in the country.

The question that even proponents of this push are asking is how to ratchet it up to a level that meaningfully curbs the growth of fossil-fueled energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Hybrid cars, for instance, are hot sellers, yet so far this year they account for only 2.9% of total U.S. light-vehicle sales, according to industry analyst J.D. Power & Associates. And because auto makers have long decided to accentuate cars’ horsepower, many hybrid models get only marginally better fuel economy than comparable gasoline-powered versions.

Residential wind turbines reflect the same dilemma. The estimated 3,000 residential-scale turbines installed in the U.S. today are collectively capable of producing only about 60 megawatts of electricity, according to the wind-energy group. That’s less than one-tenth the generating capacity of some modern coal-fired power plants.

The turbine model sold to Messrs. Bush, Bartlett and Branson can crank out at most two kilowatts of power. That could provide anywhere between 30% and 70% of the electricity needs of a typical house, according to government statistics. But that’s optimistic; the number depends on the wind at the site and the energy load of the house. Achieving those savings requires an investment of roughly $13,000 for the turbine and installation — an investment that often takes more than a decade to recoup. Still, the hope is that a personal wind turbine is just the beginning, or “a gateway drug,” notes Ron Stimmel, small-wind advocate for the wind-energy group.

Most new technologies have started by appealing to “early adopters,” people with the interest, money and contacts to catapult them into the mainstream.

Mr. Leno may help in that regard, as could his solution: to employ a range of energy-saving measures. He has plenty of polluting options: about 105 cars and 80 motorcycles. “I drive them all,” he said in a telephone interview.

But he recently installed a wind turbine at the garage which houses those vehicles. Given that he also has an array of solar panels on the garage’s roof and an old natural-gas powered generator, “I make way more electricity than I’m using,” he said.

At a huge cost: Mr. Leno estimates the solar panels cost him $500,000 and the turbine cost about $19,000, including installation. “My credo is, people don’t care how much energy you use as long as you make it yourself,” says the entertainer. His daily commuter is a restored 1925 Ford Model T. “If you drive the same car for 80 years, you have less of a carbon footprint than trading in a Prius in three or four years,” he says.

Some companies are particularly intrigued by the notion of cleanly producing a portion of their own power. HEB Inc., a Texas-based grocery-store chain, recently installed a wind turbine, 20 feet tall by 12 feet wide, at a distribution center in south Texas. The turbine is likely to provide between 5% and 8% of the distribution center’s power needs, says Jim Fugitte, chief executive of Wind Energy Corp., the company that built and installed it.

Mr. Fugitte tells potential customers his turbine, which sits atop a 100-foot-tall tower at the center, amounts to a big billboard advertising a company’s environmental commitment.

The turbine at Mr. Bush’s sprawling Kennebunkport compound has “a really small” impact on the compound’s consumption of fossil-fuel energy, says Southwest Wind’s Mr. Kruse. The same, he says, is true on Mr. Branson’s island.

Yet the line of luminaries expressing interest in his turbines is growing. Among them, Mr. Kruse says: film director Francis Ford Coppola, who couldn’t be reached, a spokeswoman said, and Sam Brownback, the Republican senator from Kansas. An aide said the senator is considering a turbine at his home.

Mr. Brownback’s house in Kansas has “marginal wind,” laments Mr. Kruse, the wind entrepreneur. That’s because breezes in the area aren’t the stiffest, and the property has tall wind-blocking trees. “The economics aren’t there,” Mr. Kruse says. “But it’s not always about that.”

Write to Jeffrey Ball at


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