Wind Makes Ranch Energy Neutral

—STEVE MCKNIGHT

“You want to be committed idealistically… It’s something that’s right for future generations.”

If those recent TV commercials have you feeling like David Suzuki is suddenly going to pop up from nowhere and scold you each time you leave the lights on in barn, you’re not alone. These days it seems everyone is talking about the consequences of using up our precious energy resources, and rightfully so.

With that in mind, the idea of tapping into some “green” energy sources is becoming more than strictly a dollars-and-cents decision. Ethics have been added to the mix. At least Steve and Patti McKnight who ranch near Halkirk, Alta., think so. They recently installed a wind turbine on their farm to offset the power they use from Alberta’s main electricity grid.

“We just like the idea of being able to supply our own energy,” says Steve. When the McKnights’ wind turbine was first connected into the main electrical grid, it marked an Alberta milestone: They were the first small-scale energy producers to feed wind-generated power back to Alberta Energy.

Derek Brown of Simply Wind, a Calgary-based wind-energy systems provider who set up the McKnight‘s system, says there is a 12-to 15-year payback time for anyone investing in a similar system. That may seem like a long time, but “the system will last 25 to 30 years,” adds Brown. That means environmental concerns aside, there will eventually be a payback and a profit.

But waiting 15 years for a return on investment isn’t great, and it wasn’t a big factor for the McKnights. “If you were considering that in your decision (to install a turbine), you probably wouldn’t make it,” says Steve.

The McKnights’ turbine is mounted on a 126-foot tower near their yard. And getting the turbine mounted well up into the air means the system will capture more wind energy than a lower installation would. “Location is very important… You want to put a fair bit of thought into where you put it,” says Steve.

Brown says anyone considering a similar installation should do some preliminary work to assess whether their particular area is good for harvesting electricity from the wind. A check of the Canadian Wind Energy Atlas, which is available online at www.windatlas.ca,will give you specific wind estimates for your area.

And getting the most out of a system is important when you consider the McKnights’ system required an investment of about $40,000. Brown says there are smaller, less expensive systems available. “For an entry-level cost, you could go as low as $5,000 to $10,000,” he says.

YOU NEED THE TOWER

A large part of the cost of a windmill is the tower. “I’ve seen some systems as low as $3,000 that come with building mounts,” Brown says. But he doesn’t recommend going that route. “There are harmonics involved with wind, so you don’t want to put them on any structure.” Typically, towers are located 500 to 1,000 feet from buildings to minimize interference.

Towers are available in three general types: tilt down, lattice and monopole. The latter two require climbing to get at the turbine for maintenance, so the first type will likely appeal to most people considering a farm or ranch installation. And when it comes to maintenance, Brown says there is very little required. Changing gearbox oil occasionally and inspecting the blades is about the extent of it.

Because the McKnights’ system feeds back into the main electrical grid, they were limited by Alberta regulations that required their system not produce significantly more energy than they could expect to use on their ranch. Their current usage is around 12,000 kilowatt hours per year, and their turbine can produce as much as 16,000 kilowatt hours annually.

But connecting to the provincial grid meant that they didn’t need to invest in a battery storage system, which would have significantly added to the investment cost. “If you have to have a battery pack, it’s 25 to 40 per cent higher on system costs,” says Brown. And batteries are maintenance intensive.

If the McKnights had opted for a battery pack, they’d be immune from occasional local black outs. But Steve doesn’t think that one advantage outweighs the benefits of being tied in. “In the long run, I think this is the better way to go,” he says.

WHY WIND?

Wind wasn’t the only “green” system option available to the McKnights. They could have opted for solar panels. Although Brown says the solar option may suit some situations better, wind is usually the best option for rural properties. Wind costs less per kilowatt hour, he says. And solar energy is limited in winter due to the shorter days, whereas the wind blows year round.

The day the McKnights’ turbine went online, a few local dignitaries were on hand to commemorate the occasion. Steve says some of his neighbours have since expressed an interest in following their lead. “Steve and Patty are the first, so everybody’s watching them,” says Brown.

“It got to the point that our energy costs were excessive and we though they’d get larger,” says Steve. But he admits the final decision involved more than that. “You want to be committed idealistically… It’s something that’s right for future generations,” he says.

For anyone interested in considering a wind-energy system, several companies across the Prairies can assist in evaluating a site and supplying a wide variety of systems. An Internet search will turn up several websites, including www.simplywind.ca(Derek Brown’s company). And who knows, maybe investing in a clean-energy system like the McKnights did will get that imaginary David Suzuki off your back!

Scott Garvey specializes in writing about tractors and farm machinery technology for publications in Canada and Great Britain. He’s also a former affiliate member of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). He farms near Moosomin, Sask.

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Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor at Grainews.

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