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In Britain, wind turbines offer homespun electricity

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 2006


Amid the rooftops and chimneys of this seaside town south of London spins a solitary symbol of Britain's growing devotion to green energy. Usually relegated to windy plains or planted offshore, a wind turbine has sprouted on the roof of Daren Howarth's terrace house.

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While it is Brighton's first, miniature windmills have suddenly become the latest "must have" accessory among Britain's eco-conscious city dwellers.

Yet even as Mr. Howarth's wind turbine has begun to generate modest levels of energy, debate swirls across the country over whether these small turbines are nothing more than a fashionable folly. Not all homes are structurally sound enough to support them. And some question whether the power these turbines generate will offset installation costs. Wind speed and direction vary widely in urban settings where buildings and other landmarks pose interference.

But more homeowners like Howarth seem willing to test the turbines even while regulations and improved designs are being hammered out.

"The key thing with these technologies is to start using [them] and start generating power yourself," says Howarth, who is still getting used to the rising and falling whine of the blades above his bedroom window. "It is making me extremely aware of what I'm using in the house ... and how hard it is to generate a little bit of power."

Standing inside the door to his roof deck, Howarth points to a black box on the wall that shows the number of kilowatts the steadily churning turbine is producing at that moment: about 0.8 kilowatts, enough to power a small hair dryer. Howarth has had his wind turbine operating for less than a month, but even without a substantial savings in his monthly energy bill, he's already convinced that it is a worthwhile investment.

"If people have a few thousand pounds in the bank making 5 percent interest, they are going to make that same rate of return installing these systems," he says. "And that's including the CO2 benefit, so there's no excuse in not doing it if you can access the capital." His total cost was about US$3,900.

With or without personal wind turbines, British citizens in urban areas are growing all too conscious of their carbon emissions. A steep "congestion charge," which was first introduced in 2003, requires that anyone driving into London pay the equivalent of $15. There is talk of a green tax on energy consumption, and homeowners and businesses alike are encouraged to take advantage of government grants to install these microgeneration wind-turbine systems.

By some measures, Britain's environmental efforts are succeeding. The United Nations reported last month that the country is only one of a small number of industrialized nations whose greenhouse-gas emissions have fallen in the past 15 years.

With the roll-out of Britain's low-carbon buildings program last May, more homeowners are exploring the possibility of applying for government grants that will pay up to 30 percent of the cost for wind turbines and solar water heaters and up to 50 percent for solar panels. Wind turbines are the second most-sought-after grant. More than 1,300 homeowners across Britain are now pursuing grants. That translates into more than $2.5 million in grant money.

Renewable-energy industry analysts are encouraged.

"The figure of 1,300 is double the figure of currently installed wind turbines in the UK," says Georgina Wong, an onshore wind officer for the British Wind and Energy Association, the leading renewable-energy trade association in Britain.