Georgia Power Small Wind Demo Raises Questions

By Paul Gipe

Later this year Georgia Power Company, a part of the Southern Company, is installing three small wind turbines as a demonstration.

Is this newsworthy? Is it significant in any way? No, it’s not newsworthy and it’s certainly not significant in any meaningful way. But Georgia Power’s project does raise questions. The most obvious is why. Why are they doing this?

This item was “thrown over the transom” as we say in response to an article I wrote about an ill-advised installation of a Darrieus wind turbine on top of a building in Germany. The implication was that I should look into Georgia Power’s project.

Normally, I wouldn’t waste my time. There are thousands of small wind turbines installed around the world. Many projects are successful. Some are not. But the question of why they Georgia Power is doing this kept nagging me.

First, the good news. The utility is installing three legitimate wind turbines, not some hair-brained contraption of a local inventor—and they are not putting them on the roof! All three wind turbines are “certified” by international testing laboratories. The turbines will work. And at the Skidaway Island site on the Georgia coast, they should do quite well.

We know all this already. Which brings us back to the question, why is the utility doing this?

In short, what’s the point?

Let’s take the utility’s stated purpose.

  • To understand the feasibility of small wind in Georgia
  • To study wind resources in various geographic areas
  • To study avian and noise impacts of small wind turbines

The first objective is vague enough to justify almost any endeavor. You can study the feasibility of small wind on the back of an envelope if you know the wind resource. You don’t need to install actual wind turbines to do that. This isn’t rocket science.

The second objective has probably already been done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and possibly by the utility itself decades ago.

The third objective is just as flimsy as the other two.

We already know the noise emissions from these turbines. Noise studies were done as part of their certification tests. The results are public.

We may not already know how these small wind turbines will affect birds at this site, but we know that this study is unlikely to tell us. Why? For the simple reason that it’s very hard to determine the impact on birds by small wind turbines because–they are small. The number of birds killed by wind turbines is a function of the site and the size of the wind turbines. That these are small wind turbines suggest any impact will be small as well.

To top it all off, Georgia Power will remove the turbines by the end of 2017—whether the turbines have operated for a full year or not. You really can’t meet any of the project’s three objectives over such a short time period. Wind turbines, small or large, must operate for decades. To gauge feasibility, you must operate the turbines over multiple years to judge performance and reliability. To study the turbines impact on birds, again, you must study them for years.

Operating the turbines for only one year is unlikely to tell the utility anything of importance.

The utility brags that it “buys” 250 MW of wind power from Oklahoma. The flipside of that statement is that they don’t develop wind power themselves. As of 2014 there were no wind power plants in Georgia.

I don’t fault the small wind turbine dealers who will install the Gaia, Bergey, and Xeres wind turbines in this project. It must be tough to be in the renewable business in Georgia if Georgia Power’s small wind project is the best the state can come up with.

Of course, it’s one thing if the utility wants to use its own money to push a little greenwashing on consumers, it’s quite another thing to get ratepayers to pay for such a dubious project.