In a recent WSJ story, “A Novel Way to Reduce Home Energy Bills,” Sara Schaefer Muñoz writes about the possibility of adding windmills to homes in order to cut down on the cost of utilities.
“While wind energy is commonly associated with massive turbines churning in desolate, windy areas, a new generation of smaller systems made for areas with moderate wind is hitting the market. The latest small turbines, which resemble a ship propeller on a pole, have three blades, are up to 24 feet in diameter and are usually perched on stand-alone towers between 35 and 140 feet high. The systems have the potential to save consumers between 30% and 90% on their electric bills, manufacturers say, and promise to make no more noise than an air conditioner,” says Muñoz. “But tapping so-called small wind using a high-tech windmill can be costly, and homeowners may find themselves battling zoning officials and annoyed neighbors who find the towering devices unsightly.”
Is this just a case of NIMBY? After all, we’re not likely to see these things in urban areas: “The systems aren’t for city dwellers or residents of tightly packed suburbs. Those interested in small systems should have at least a half-acre of property, wind speeds of at least 10 mph and electric bills of $60 a month or more to make installing the system worthwhile, manufacturers say.” One of the companies profiled is the Bergey Windpower Company, who makes the BWC Excel, “America’s most popular residential & small business wind turbine.”
Zoning officials will no doubt use the “novelty” of the idea as a way to impede the use of these windmills, but in a real way there’s not much that’s novel about these systems at all. Sure, they convert wind power into electrical power instead of kinetic energy, but other than that, they function a lot like windmills have for hundreds of years.
As Rodney Stark writes in his book, The Victory of Reason (for which I’m in the process of writing an overdue review right now), in the Middle Ages, “Windmills proliferated even more rapidly than waterwheels because there was wind everywhere. In order to take full advantage of the wind even when it shifted direction, medieval engineers invented the post mill, which mounted the sails on a massive post, leaving them free to turn with the wind. By late in the twelfth century, Europe was becoming so crowded with windmills that owners began to file lawsuits against one another for blocking their wind.”