Downtown Muskegon, Mich., population just over 40,000 people, has one thing on New York City's Times Square: a small-scale wind turbine powering a liquid-crystal display. Only this (smaller) billboard gives the time, temperature, wind direction and wind speed, along with the cumulative energy generated by the turbine, rather than featuring the latest ad from Samsung or Calvin Klein. It's the first sign of what Grand Rapids, Mich.–based plastics manufacturer Cascade Engineering hopes will be a revolution in wind turbines for businesses and residences.
"We're allowing [homeowners] an on-site renewable solution for their home, whether in the city or [in the country]," says Cascade marketing manager Jessica Lehti. The company's SWIFT wind turbine is also aimed at helping businesses "offset those peak loads [of electricity demand], generate on-site renewable energy, and demonstrate their commitment to renewable energy."
The SWIFT turbine, based on a design from Renewable Devices, Ltd., in Scotland, is about seven feet (2.1 meters) in diameter, weighs a svelte 190 pounds (86 kilograms), and produces an average of 2,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually in winds of at least eight miles (12 kilometers) per hour from its five blades. More importantly, an outer ring around the blades eliminates the steady hum associated with large-scale wind farms.
"The wind was blowing 30 miles [48 kilometers] per hour this morning," says Arnold Boezaart, vice president for grant programs at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, whose four-story arts complex boasts the first commercial SWIFT attached to a mast jutting from its outside wall. "The thing was just cranking like crazy but it was zero-noise. We were 10 feet [three meters] below the unit and there was no noise."
In fact, the turbine clocks in at 35 decibels—about the same level as a whisper, according to Lehti.
But that quietness comes at a price: around $12,000 installed on the roof and hooked to the grid compared with as little as $4,000 for some other small-scale turbine designs. And the turbine won't soon make up the cost: Two thousand kilowatt-hours is less than one fifth the energy use of a typical American home. "If they did some easy energy conservation tactics [it would be] pretty easy to get to around 6,000 kilowatt-hours, then it's about one third of the average home," Lehti says. But "in most cases, if you put this on your home you're not going to be rolling back your [electricity] meter."
In fact, such small-scale wind turbines are typically more about green design than actual energy generation, although the American Wind Energy Association predicts robust growth of as much as 20 percent in the area as a result of local and state tax incentives. In addition to the lightweight SWIFT, Mariah Power in Reno, Nev. offers a 30-foot- (nine–meter-) tall cylindrical wind turbine, whereas San Diego–based Helix Wind offers a turbine in the shape of a double helix, and Southwest Wind Power in Flagstaff, Ariz., has been selling its windmills for decades, among others. "Think of it as recycling," Lehti says. "In most places, you're not getting paid to recycle, you're paying your trashman extra to do recycling, because it's a good thing to do."
For those companies and homeowners looking to make a green impression—like Muskegon's Community Foundation—the SWIFT offers a quiet chance. "First and foremost we wanted to offer a showcase for alternative energy," Boezaart says. "To the extent we gain some electricity output to offset conventional grid-generated electricity will be added value. It will do that over time."