The Future of Small-Scale Wind Power (2014)

Wind power is one renewable energy source that’s fixing its flaws and being used for small-scale production.

By William McDonough and Michael Braungart
March 31, 2014

Dan Juhl, who understands farm life from his own childhood in Woodstock, Minnesota, has been creating profitable business arrangements to encourage small-scale wind power cooperatives. Photo by Fotolia/RG



Wind Power: A Renewable Fixing Its Flaws

What makes large-scale hydropower so troublesome is that it does not allow for easy revision. What if the designers and engineers are wrong? How can the structure adapt? If you’ve flooded square miles of wilderness and built a dam 63 stories tall, it’s hard to revise, to amend the system. It is not much different than strip mining or generating nuclear waste in that one has no opportunity to revise. That’s why we believe the best solution is a humble approach combining small solutions that add up to something huge.

Wind power was a renewable that seemed flawed early on but is now fixing its problems step by step. Wind power had the advantage of not massively reconfiguring our terrain at the start and then discovering the downside. That relatively smaller profile allowed wind power to adapt, fix itself, and grow.

Wind power, of course, is nothing new. Windmills have been used for centuries to grind grain on Mykonos, drain the polders of Holland, or pump water from wells into fields in North America. Before rural electrification in the United States, tens of thousands of small electric wind generators dotted the rural landscape. In the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. government funded the development of large-scale wind turbines, as did other countries such as Denmark, Germany, Spain, India, and, later, China. Now there are many manufacturers of large-scale wind turbines in the market, including big companies like General Electric.

The market for wind blows hot and cold based on local energy pricing, available tax incentives, market production, transportation costs, and so on, but generally, it has been a fast-growing renewable energy sector. Since the 1980s, the cost per kilowatt-hour of wind has dropped 80 percent; it is approximately 2¢ cheaper per kWh than coal-powered electricity on the U.S. market as of June 2012. And that’s without accounting for the cost it saves our system due to decreased carbon dioxide emissions. About 24 percent of Denmark’s energy needs reportedly are met by wind, and the country has plans to grow that to 50 percent by 2020. Serious wind development is happening. It has all the hallmarks of a new industry with ups and downs, but it is clearly here to stay—even with cheap natural gas coming from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in shale formations.

But for many people, wind power doesn’t seem like a clean renewable because it can create visual blight on formerly beautiful country landscapes. Where wind turbines crowd, say, the Tehachapi Pass in California or the Nantucket Sound in Cape Cod, some observers think they might as well be looking at big, unattractive power plants.

Many individuals and government bodies have begun to address this eyesore problem.

The University of Maine is developing the engineering for large floating wind turbines 20 miles offshore (out of sight) that would produce the energy equivalent of 150 nuclear power plants. Maine could have a new cash crop to add to its famous lobsters—clean energy. Minnesota recently passed legislation to provide incentives to individual wind turbine owners, residents of the state, who do not own more than two wind turbines. In other words, you can win tax breaks on property—the purchase of the wind turbine itself—and a business tax credit if you generate wind on a small scale. This sort of legislation could help every Midwestern farmer buy a source of renewable power for his or her work, generate income by selling up to the grid, and fashion a distributed generation network appropriately scaled to the other human activities in the locale.

Dan Juhl, who understands farm life from his own childhood in Woodstock, Minnesota, has been creating profitable business arrangements to encourage this kind of small-scale wind-plant cooperative. Often big utilities and energy buyers enter a community to negotiate the cheapest price for land and end up pitting one farmer against another. One farmer becomes the winner and all the others get left out. Instead, Juhl, through his Juhl Wind Inc., brings together a group of farmers to invest in a common future.

For a set rate of return, an outside investor injects significant capital to fund the larger construction costs. As the tax incentives and revenue accrue from producing and selling electricity, the investor is paid out his or her return. In ten years, when the investors have achieved their goals for financial return, the ownership of the wind turbines transfers to the farmers, who can use and sell the energy produced. The wind turbines become the capital real estate of the local residents, producing “currency” for the perpetuation of jobs and benefits to the local community for decades.

The result? Wind turbines dot the Great Plains, local family farmers earn enough for their mortgages and their kids’ college educations—and a new industry, renewable power, is created in places where we need power. The investor is happy too, because the guaranteed return has been paid out in full. The dispersed wind turbines make a more pleasant visual for the neighbors. Wind is the new cash crop.

Another issue with wind has been how to store the energy produced, not just sell it to the grid. This issue has sparked creativity and innovation. One of our favorite small-scale proposals involves using wind turbines to help solve a pressing rural problem. In farming regions, school authorities have been having difficulty affording school buses to pick up children each day. The farms are too far apart, and the fuel gets expensive. But of course everyone wants their kids to be able to live on the farms, for the parents not to have to trade in their lives as farmers simply to be sure their kids can be educated.

Juhl’s solution is to install small wind turbines, an optimized design, at community centers in the Midwest and use these centers to power up electric buses. These vehicles require less maintenance because there is no need to change spark plugs or oil, as with internal combustion engines. The buses deploy in the morning and the late afternoon. The rest of the time they are sitting idle. But what if that time were optimized? What if, when parked, waiting, the buses were getting charged by the sun and by the wind?

The wind would actually be healing the community. The children could still be at home on the farms, and the buses could fetch them for their school day. The community would have optimized around a local resource for concentrated energy instead of farmers sending their money far away to the Middle East looking for fossil fuels that are insecure and might inspire even military intervention. Or instead of spending their money on nonlocal sources in Pennsylvania or Alberta, they could collect the clean, free, abundant energy flying right overhead, ready to pay for mortgages and college tuitions. No one has to leave the farm to protect a way of life.


Excerpted from The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, published in 2013 by North Point Press, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. All rights reserved.


Authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart seek a world that is full of clean air, water, soil and power. In their latest ecological manifesto, The Upcycle (North Point Press, 2013), that is precisely the goal they envision. They propose that a better designed world would lead to overall prosperity. In the following excerpt, from “Wind Equals Food,” see how the revamping of wind power can used to produce clean energy, even on a small-scale.  Find more books authored by William McDonough on Amazon.

William McDonough has written and lectured extensively on the Cradle to Cradle design theory, encouraging the utilization of renewable resources and energy.  Most recently, William McDonough was invited to lead a discussion at the Fortune Brainstorm GREEN Conference, May 19-21.  See where he will be presenting next by following William McDonough on Twitter for the latest updates on industry events and conferences.