The University of Southampton
Engineering and the Environment

Micro-wind turbines

Ten years ago, small scale wind turbines in towns and cities were becoming popular as perceived sources of green energy by generating electricity at the point of use. However, research by specialist environmental engineers at the University of Southampton revealed these micro-wind devices were very inefficient and some actually consumed more power than they generated. Publication of their findings in 2009 attracted considerable media coverage and major DIY chain B&Q withdrew from selling domestic wind turbines altogether.

Overview

Research challenge

Doubt was first cast on the viability of household ‘mini-power stations’ in 2006 when Southampton researchers Dr Patrick James, Professor AbuBakr Bahaj and Dr Luke Myers carried out a study of three micro-generation technologies: photovoltaics, micro-CHP (combined heat and power) and micro-wind. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) project was aimed at determining whether these technologies were suitable for large-scale uptake. As part of the work, the team analysed wind speeds across a number of UK sites. In the final report, Dr Myers predicted micro-wind yields would be significantly lower than those claimed by the industry trade body.

In 2007, the Energy Saving Trust appointed the University to carry out further data analysis on the efficiency of both building-mounted and the more powerful pole-mounted turbines from some of 600 existing grant-funded micro-wind turbine sites in the UK. Dr Patrick James led the work and reported back to the trial steering committee that included key government policymakers, energy companies and B&Q.

The final report demonstrated conclusively that micro-wind turbines installed on buildings performed very poorly, some consuming more power than they generated. Even at the best sites in exposed and windy rural areas, annual yields were far lower than the estimates predicted by industry. None of the devices mounted on buildings would pay for themselves within the expected life of the turbines.

Context

The UK government is legally committed to meeting 15 per cent of the UK’s energy demand from renewable sources by 2020.

Achieving this target will also help to achieve the country’s energy security and carbon reduction objectives.

Renewables include wind, solar, hydro-electric and tidal power as well as geothermal energy and biomass. Using more renewable energy will enable the UK to cut greenhouse emissions and make the country less dependent on imported energy. Boosting the green energy industry will also encourage technological innovation and employment.

Our solution

After demonstrating that household ‘mini-power stations’ using wind turbines in towns and cities would be highly inefficient, Southampton researchers focused on alternatives. Dr James assessed the market potential for wind turbines by relating wind speed observations to farm statistics supplied by the UK Government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It became clear that there were significant opportunities to generate power on farmland in exposed parts of the UK using small pole-mounted turbines.

When the results of the research were released in July 2009, the study attracted widespread coverage on national and regional media including BBC News. Dr James delivered presentations about the findings and their implications. Manufacturers revised their performance claims and B&Q withdrew from micro-wind altogether, refunding customers who had bought its domestic wind turbine.

Since then, the emphasis of wind generation has changed from urban to rural. In 2010, only 113 building-mounted turbines were installed, less than two per cent of the number forecast the year before by the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA). Pole-mounted turbines now account for more than 97 per cent of grid-connected sales in the UK micro wind industry.

Our impact

Research into small-scale electricity generation by wind power at Southampton has been instrumental in the shift away from turbines on buildings in urban areas to more efficient devices mounted on poles in the countryside. Studies by expert environmental engineers have informed public understanding of the potential and limitations of micro-wind power and forced manufacturers to retreat from claims that could not be met.

The research has also been used to help set government subsidy levels for micro-wind power and as a basis for modelling projections of future energy yields.

Environmental engineers have informed public understanding of the potential and limitations of micro-wind power
Micro-wind turbine

Media

Publications

Key Publications

Research Staff

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