If you can get planning permission – and the consent of your neighbours – a wind turbine appears to be an excellent investment for either home or farm. Make sure they are installed by an MCS (Microgeneration Certification Scheme) accredited installer so that you qualify for the FIT (Feed In Tariff) and you should get a nice annual payment from the government for the next 20 years – as well as a big drop in your electricity bills.

Many of us will have seen a giant wind turbine or wind farm in the distance and instantly decided that it spoils the view. Get closer, and you might think it’s too noisy as well. So, visibility and noise are the obvious downsides to wind turbines. But every new feature of our landscape – railways, electricity pylons, motorways – has been unpopular at first, and turbines will eventually become an accepted part of the landscape in the same way. Wind energy is free, clean and green, and it isn’t going to just blow away and not come back. In fact, the UK has more wind energy than any other country in Europe. Due to current government subsidies, wind turbines are becoming increasingly attractive: pop in a turbine, start reaping the subsidy – and the energy – and hope that between them they generate enough to pay the bills, or at least a big chunk of them. But is it really that simple?

The wind turbine controversy

Whereas PV panels have mostly enjoyed a good press the same cannot be said for wind turbines, especially when several of them are installed in a group as a ‘wind farm’, considered as a blot on the landscape by many. Unfortunately they are often sited on ridge tops in hilly, out-of-the-way places to get the benefit of the higher wind speeds – in other words, the very places we might want to escape to in order to ‘get away from it all’. This is further complicated in that wide, flat roads are required for wind farm maintenance access, and enormous concrete foundations needed for each turbine. So, wind energy may end up spoiling some of our previously unspoiled wilderness areas.

Some turbines are noisy and considered intrusive for that reason alone. Older turbines are generally noisier than newer, and some of the newest models use a vertical rotating blade design instead of the more traditional ‘windmill’ approach and claim to be almost completely silent. Vertical or not, wind turbine blades will kill any birds which they hit. Bats which get too close are also killed, due the sudden pressure changes created by the blades as they rotate.

wind farm, image

Weighing the pros and cons

Despite these drawbacks, a wind farm will probably always be better looking than a coal-fired or nuclear power station; wind energy is a non-depleted power source; a turbine can pay back it’s initial CO2 footprint as fast as traditional technologies but then creates no more carbon debt; it generates no additional pollution of any kind whereas other power generation methods can kill birds and other wildlife on a much wider scale due to toxic by-products. Wind turbines generate power any time the wind blows, including at night – something PV panels cannot do. And, best of all, current government subsidies have made installing small turbines on private property a very attractive option for farmers, smallholders and even city dwellers.

The FIT (Feed In Tariff) subsidy

In the UK the current FIT subsidy scheme guarantees to pay you for each unit of electricity produced for 20 years following installation. This amount will be slightly reduced in April 2012 with further annual reductions thereafter. There’s never been a better time to put in an alternative power system and quite possibly never will be again. If you install a wind turbine rated at less than 1.5 kW, your ‘generation tariff’ FIT payment will be 34.5p per kWh (kilowatt hour) generated, while for a system rated between 1.5 to 15kW it’s 26.7p per kWh. These tariff amounts will change in line with inflation. You can either use the power yourself, or feed it into the national grid, in which case you gain another 3.1p per kWh (the ‘export tariff’).

What about the payback time?

Just how long it will take for a system to pay for itself and begin to generate a profit depends on several factors. Basically, the greater the wind speed, the bigger the turbine and the taller the tower it’s placed on, the faster the payback period. Standard estimates for the payback on FIT-qualified systems are between 3 and 10 years. Carbon neutrality of the manufacturing process should be reached between 6 and 18 months after installation.

You can estimate average wind speed for your area here, and the payback time here.

As a rough guide, here’s a comparison based on two sizes of turbine installed on the same site in a rural area: A small turbine (annual yield estimated at between 3,200 and 6,400kWh) on a 6.5 metre tower (requiring a concrete foundation slab 2.2 x 2.2 x 1.2m) with average wind speeds of 5m/s could be expected to generate annual FIT revenue of £1360, plus £480 savings on power bills. Total annual revenue, £1840 per year. A slightly larger turbine (annual yield estimated at between 6,000 and 12,000kWh) on a 9m tower (concrete foundation slab 2.5 x 2.5 x 1m) with average wind speeds of 5.7m/s, should generate a total of £3,700 per year.

Micro turbines

As an alternative to the above systems, micro turbines are also available for people who want to generate a little power for a remote building such as a stable or caravan, recharge batteries, or are simply interested in having a small wind generator for educational or DIY purposes. These are not likely to help with electicity bills as they’re too small, but are still viable choices for the above reasons. Prices range from between £700 – £1800. At the cheaper end of this scale, you should be able to power up to three energy-saving lightbulbs for about 20 hours.

Planning permission

While in many parts of the country solar panels are considered ‘permitted development’ and therefore require no planning permission, siting a wind turbine on your property is a different matter. However, due to the recent National Planning Policy Statement (PPS22), local authorities should now ‘promote and encourage’ any development of renewable energy resources, so the chances of your plan being approved are good. Towers for smaller micro turbines are mostly temporary structures and so do not usually require planning permission.

As well as contacting your local authority you should also contact your neighbours. Wind turbines are usually visible to others, and this means your neighbours may not be very keen on the idea. As a good relationship with neighbours is worth a great deal, it is not something to throw aside lightly.

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