In Britain, wind turbines offer homespun electricity

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

The B&Q, a do-it-yourself chain that looks like a British version of Home Depot with its orange banners and towering aisles of home goods, started selling domestic wind turbines two months ago for about $2,600 each. "Since going on sale, the biggest-selling product line at B&Q in value – out of more than 43,000 lines – is the wind turbine," writes B&Q spokeswoman Alex McHaines in an e-mail.

The growing interest in wind turbines is also stirring some words of caution.

"A small-scale wind turbine on a roof is not going to generate a lot of electricity," says Nick Schoon, spokesman for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, a nonprofit that has closely monitored wind turbine developments in the country's natural areas. "The air flow over cities is not very smooth. If anything, it's a symbolic contribution. It's making a statement that you want to make a difference."

Making a difference is precisely what Howarth aims to do. No stranger to pioneering environmental efforts, he operates a carbon balancing consulting business called C Level (www. clevel.co.uk). The company has been helping clients understand and reduce their "carbon footprint" since 2000. ("Carbon footprint" is the term used to describe the level of carbon emitted by the consumption of fossil fuels. Anyone who uses energy in their homes or in their modes of transportation leaves a carbon footprint.)

Even with the likelihood of only modest returns, the idea of hoisting a propeller to harness the wind appealed to Howarth. In spring 2005, Brighton held an environmental town meeting where an audience of 200 was asked how many were using sustainable energy in their homes. Only one woman raised her hand. "I thought, 'What more can I be doing on a personal level?' " says Howarth.

So at another town meeting this past spring, Howarth made a public commitment to try to get the necessary approval to have a wind turbine installed. The response was overwhelming. "People were dropping notes through my door and e-mails through my website saying, 'That sounds great! Can you come talk to us about it?' "

The approval process required researching wind speeds on Howarth's street and having a property survey and architectural plans drawn up. The process took six months, Howarth says. The turbine was installed earlier this month.

While he gets some satisfaction knowing that he is helping to advance home microgeneration systems, the wind turbine's presence gives Howarth an unease not unlike that of a new parent. He admits he even turned it off one night when he was trying to sleep. But he says he is committed to the 18-month trial permit the city has granted to test the acoustic and visual impact on the neighborhood.

Because of the growing interest in wind turbines and solar panels, Howarth recently partnered with city officials to educate consumers about what it takes to set up these kinds of systems. The project, called "Our Generation," plans to provide a website with blogs and Google maps that plot where homeowners have successfully installed wind turbines or solar panels.

Reading firsthand accounts of the trials and successes of installing microgeneration systems could be helpful to homeowners while the accreditation process for manufacturers and information guides for consumers are being worked out. At the moment, the WindSave turbine being sold by the B&Q is a simple machine that does not store unused energy.

"We'll know a lot more [about domestic wind turbines] by next spring when the accreditation process is finished," says Ms. Wong. "The process of researching and becoming aware of your energy consumption is a positive. [But] people need to be careful in their enthusiasm and do their research to determine if their site has adequate wind speed."

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