Why wireless Internet matters to small wind

The CEO of small wind turbine maker Southwest Windpower is lobbying for both clean-energy incentives and rural broadband so that its turbines can better connect to the Internet

If you ask Andy Kruse, the CEO of wind turbine maker Southwest Windpower, about technology, he's more likely to talk about software and WiMax than turbine blades or inverters.

Kruse is in Washington this week lobbying to improve the subsidies for installing small wind turbines, one of the fastest growing segments in wind energy. Southwest Windpower makes a line of small wind turbines including the Skystream, which is sized for individual homes.

Changes in the stimulus package will lift the $4,000 cap on the federal tax credit for small wind purchases and other forms of clean-energy generation, according to Kruse. That means that consumers or businesses can get a tax credit worth 30 percent of the purchase price for a small wind turbine, geothermal heat pump, or solar hot water installation.

A Skystream wind turbine at the Botanitic Gardens near the Mall in Washington D.C. Southwest Wind

In addition to better financial incentives, Kruse is also advocating that federal dollars are spent on better renewable energy software and Internet connectivity in rural areas.

Better site assessment software, coupled with lots of computing power, would help consumers and installers get more detailed information on the available wind or sun resource at a particular location.

The difference between a suboptimal site and one with a good wind resource can be dramatic, said Kruse. With good wind and high electricity rates, a homeowner could recoup the upfront investment of a small wind turbine in five or six years. But with low electricity rates and marginal wind could mean 15 or 20 years, he said.

Start-up 3Tier offers a wind and sun resource map but more detail will help optimize the installation and avoid dissatisfied customers. Southwest Windpower estimates that about 13 million locations in the U.S. are suitable for its small wind turbine which is typically mounted on a pole.

"You really needed Cray (supercomputers) before to generate maps," he said. "We're at the point now where we can look at this and use cheaper horsepower to create better maps."

Internet access, too, is important to Southwest Windpower because some of its turbines have built-in local-area networking.

"Our wind turbines are Zigbee wireless controlled so we can monitor it and give it an IP address at the router and from there we can look at the performance and can upload new software," he said.

Broadband Internet connectivity, particularly in rural areas with good wind, would give Southwest Windpower the ability to spot problems remotely.

As part of smart grid program, utilities could use that Internet connectivity to change the voltage of wind turbines in an area to reduce the load on the grid, Kruse explained.

"This is a huge step with our machines. No longer is it just an alternator that makes electricity but it's also a machine that you can communicate and interact with," he said.

 

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