Published September 27, 2012
Three years ago, Albert and Dena Sousa spent about $30,000 to install two vertical axis wind turbines at their Spanish Springs home after they were told the technology would cut their power bill in half.
The retired couple from California thought the turbines, produced by former Reno-based company Mariah Power, would generate enough electricity to pay for themselves in five years after a $7,000 rebate from NV Energy.
Today, the Sousas say the turbines have required several repairs, including a mechanical malfunction that's stopped one turbine from spinning. Meanwhile, the windmills have generated only about 365 kilowatt hours of power over three years a fraction of the energy they were hoping to generate. There will be no payoff in their lifetimes.
"So, I'm out $23,000, and all they are is a yard decoration," Albert Sousa told the Reno Gazette-Journal while standing beneath the 30-foot spires next to a backyard chicken coop. "They're no good at all."
NV Energy's windmill incentive program has awarded $19.5 million in rebates to 140 windmill projects in Nevada since 2008. The city of Reno got $167,800 in rebates after it installed nine windmills on city-owned property two years ago using federal stimulus grant money.
The NV Energy rebate program for windmills, which is funded by NV Energy rate payers, was put on hold this summer while state regulators consider new standards for the rebates.
Applicants will need to demonstrate a potential windmill project area has an average annual wind speed of 10 mph. In other words no wind, no rebate.
Jeff Hargrove, manager of NV Energy's Renewable Generations program, said the challenge with wind energy is not just its cost, but finding reliable equipment and a stable wind resource.
He said the rebate program was designed to spur investment in the industry, which could mean lower costs and better technology in the future.
"It's a bit of buyer beware," Hargrove said. "The problem is the buyers don't have enough information sometimes to make that decision.
"It's always expensive and painful to go first."
Mariah Power, the company that produced the Sousas' wind turbines, generated headlines several years ago as an example of a successful northern Nevada company making headway in the renewable energy industry.
In January, it sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
At the time, the company was going by the name Windspire Energy and had about $5.9 million in liabilities and $218,000 in assets, according to federal bankruptcy filings. In August, those assets were purchased by Wisconsin-based Ark Alloy, which is now selling the Windspire turbines.
Hargrove said homeowners who want to install windmills must understand the risks involved.
That includes finding contractors who know what they're doing. For example, he said he's seen some turbines installed directly behind two-story homes that would block the wind.
"A little wind generator in your backyard is not going to bring your electric bill down to zero," Hargrove said. "You don't do it for the economics of it; you do it for a variety of reasons."
That was the thinking for the co-owners of the Squeeze In restaurant chain, who installed one of the Mariah turbines at their location in Northwest Reno. Chad Morris, one of the co-owners, said they are disappointed by the output from their turbine, but appreciate the 15 percent it saves on their energy bill.
"Any little thing that we can do is outstanding," Morris said. "It's just not what we thought it would be when we first agreed."
Ray Cromer, who lives two doors down from the Sousas, also installed two Windspire turbines in his backyard in 2009. While his turbines have generated electricity, it has not been enough to justify the $30,000-plus price tag.
"If we had to do it again, we'd take the same money and invest it in solar panels," Cromer said.
"By my calculation the payback period on these Windspires will be about 463 years."
Until recently, municipalities and homeowners interested in small-scale wind turbines had few areas to find independent information on how a particular windmill would perform once installed.
Today, the Small Wind Certification Council in New York is trying to satisfy the demand for reliable windmill information in the United States.
The organization is already testing small-scale windmills and tracks how much energy they can produce and whether they are mechanically sound. The organization issues certifications to companies and posts them at on its website, www.smallwindcertification.org.
So far, two turbines have obtained certifications since November both are horizontal axis windmills and 30 others are in the testing phase, including the Windspire turbine.
"It doesn't matter what people say, the bottom line is the turbines need to be tested, and they need to prove that they work and they do what they say they're doing," said Larry Sherwood, executive director of the certification council, which launched in 2009.
A Reno Gazette-Journal analysis in March discovered that the majority of small-scale windmills installed by the city of Reno since 2010 generated significantly less energy than anticipated.
That includes one of Mariah's Windspires perched atop the city's downtown parking garage next to another turbine made by San Diego-based Helix Wind, which went bankrupt in May.
Jason Geddes, Reno's environmental services administrator, said several companies told the city their turbines would be able to produce substantial amounts of energy in downtown Reno.
"They were really hyped as being designed for the urban environment," Geddes said, adding manufacturers said the turbines could operate at lower wind speeds. "Honestly, other than the lower wind (speed), nothing else has proven to be true."
"There are areas in our region that are very good wind areas and get very good output," he said.
"The urban core is not one of them."