Builder hopes to generate interest in turbine

TRAVERSE CITY – A new generation of wind power technology is ready to propel northern Michigan homeowners to greater energy independence, and Traverse City entrepreneur Garth Ward wants to sell it to them.

Ward has become one of the first dealers in the country selling a more advanced form of wind turbine to individual households. The turbines generate much-or possibly even all-of the electrical power a family may need, according to their manufacturer, Flagstaff, Ariz.-based Southwest Wind Power.

Ward, a 30-year building industry veteran, formed Michigan Wind Power LLC last year to sell the equipment, marketed under the name the Skystream 3.7. Southwest Wind Power says it is designed to supply 35 to 75 percent of a home's electrical needs, depending on the size of the house and its appliances.

Ward describes the turbines as a technological breakthrough offering greater efficiency and ease of use, making them well-suited for individual homes. "There wasn't a generator like this in the market until November of last year," Ward said.

At low-to-moderate wind speeds averaging just 12 miles per hour, the Skystream produces about 400 to 500 kilowatt-hours per month, according to the manufacturer.

"This particular unit is designed to start turning at five miles per hour and start generating electricity at about 10 miles per hour," Ward said. That's less than the wind needed to ruffle a flag, Ward said. Many of the turbine towers are about as high as a telephone pole.

Ward, who lives on Gray Road in Garfield Township, is basically running the business as an Internet-based enterprise, although he plans to make house calls to demonstrate the technology. The turbines and installation cost roughly $10,000, a good deal less than the $40,000 or more that residential wind turbines have cost in the past. The equipment is ordered online and delivered to the customer's home.

Ward said he spent $8,000 to create a trailer-mounted wind turbine for his road trips. "People want to see this puppy and want to touch it before they buy it."

One of the advantages of the Skystream generator is that it dispenses with batteries for storing electricity, he said. That eliminates a range of maintenance tasks, such as cleaning terminals, required for battery-based systems.

Instead of storing electricity, the Skystream turbines push the power into the grid when the wind system is generating more electricity than the household needs. And the system draws from the grid when the wind turbines aren't generating enough power.

That's where the concept of "net metering" comes in: Sometimes, homeowners are paid for the extra power they produce and send onto the grid. At other times, they make a payment to their utility when their own production falls short.

To generate enough electricity to repay the investment, the wind turbines have to be erected in locations with the right wind conditions. Ward said he wants to closely study the conditions to assure that they can benefit from the systems before the sale.

To maximize the benefits, Ward recommends that homeowners do without electric ranges and heating and improve the energy efficiency of their houses.

"Are you heating with electricity? Bad idea," Ward said. "Are you cooking with electricity? Bad idea."

A wind-powered generator isn't likely to meet an entire home's electrical needs in every case-or even in most cases. In locations with poor wind conditions, it isn't likely to be a good investment.

In the future, Ward expects to have an answer for customers who want still more power generated at their homes: solar panels. "That's the only other product that I want to marry to mine because it also can be tied into the grid," he said.

Meanwhile, the turbines are ushering in an era of convenient, inexpensive links between home-based electrical generators and the electrical grid controlled by utilities. Ward cites Cherryland Electric Cooperative as one of the pioneers in making the hook-up easy and inexpensive.

"This form of windpower is certainly very technically feasible," said Frank Siepker, engineering manager at Cherryland Electric Cooperative. But he does advise consumers to look closely at how a system's power matches up with their own electrical needs.

He also said Cherryland plans to keep connection costs down, less than a few hundred dollars. The utility is prepared to connect with wind systems with a single meter measuring both incoming and outgoing energy.

Cherryland already has one customer with a home-based electrical generating system hooked to the grid, but it is solar-powered, not wind-powered, Siepker said.

The issue of hook-up charges is now before the Michigan Public Service Commission, and Ward believes there may be an outcry from consumers if utilities try to charge too much. He expects the question to be settled in several weeks. BN