Urban Turbines: What Are They and What Makes Sense

By Paul Gipe

Urban wind turbines. The image is immediately appealing. Most people live in cities. Most people want to use wind and solar energy. Thus, there must be ways for those living in cities–urbanites–to use wind energy.

Indeed, there is. It is being done all the time. Using commercial-scale wind turbines, community groups, municipal governments, and municipal utilities throughout the world install wind turbines within city limits.

Urban wind is quite common in continental Europe. However, it less common in the Netherlands, Great Britain, and the USA for political reasons. As a consequence there are many designs in these countries for small rooftop wind turbines that their promoters dub “urban turbines”. While some are real wind turbines built by competent–but misguided–engineers, many (for lack of a better term) are simply Fantasy Wind Turbines.

There are many different kinds of these contraptions promoted on the web. These are what Mick Sagrillo calls “internet wonders”.

This phenomena is being driven by the near universal desire to participate in the renewable revolution sweeping the globe. Everyone wants to take part. Yet in Britain, the USA, and in the Netherlands this is often very difficult. For most residents of these countries, the only way for them to participate is to buy and install small wind turbines on their rooftops. Promoters understand this-and prey on good citizens who want to do their part.

In continental Europe, more people–including urbanites–can participate by investing in commercial-scale wind turbines in their community or nearby. This approach makes far more economic sense than rooftop mounting of small wind turbines.

Why? Most, if not all, rooftop wind turbines simply don’t work. Further, most of the internet wonders billed as “urban wind turbines” or “urban turbines” are simply a promoter’s dream and few if any have ever been installed.

How can you tell? It’s simple. Look for promoters who claim their wind turbine is

  • silent (always a dead giveaway),
  • high production in low winds (perennial favorite of promoters),
  • “certified” urban turbine (the certification is not for urban use, but only for general use),
  • cheaper than everything else, and of course
  • “too good to be true”.

When I was working in Toronto, Steve Mann from the University of Toronto called. He’s the wearable computer guy. (Try talking on the telephone to a guy who is speaking through the computer that he is wearing on his head. Let’s just say, he’s still got some bugs to iron out.) He wanted my advice on what wind turbine to put on the roof of his building in downtown Toronto. I told him not to. He ignored me. Then I told him what wind turbine to use if he chose to ignore my advice. He ignored that advice too. As a consequence, the only time I’ve seen his wind turbine turning–who knows if it ever produced any electricity–is on his web site at the so-called urban renewables research lab.

Real Urban Turbines

For examples of real urban turbines see Urban Wind (Real). These are not internet wonders. These are real, electricity-producing wind turbines that make a difference. Another good example of real urban wind is Hull, Massachusetts. There are several good examples in Copenhagen. There are at least three wind farms within the city limits of the Danish capital.