In the race to cut costs, small wind turbines have fallen behind rooftop solar and other distributed energy technologies. After throwing a lot of support behind solar and industrial-scale wind in recent years, the Energy Department is turning its attention to the smaller players in wind.

Earlier this month, DOE announced the winners of the fifth round of a grant program intended to help reduce the cost of electricity generated by small and medium-sized wind turbines.

Six companies were awarded cost-shared contracts totaling $1.49 million by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Here is the complete list of Competitiveness Improvement Project (CIP) grant recipients, from the DOE press release.

  • Bergey Windpower Company of Norman, Oklahoma will seek to reduce the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) from its small wind turbine 11 percent by developing a standardized 30-meter self-supporting lattice tower with a foundation that does not require concrete. Bergey will also improve its cable and electronics design to reduce installation costs of the Bergey Excel 15 wind turbine system.
  • Intergrid of Temple, New Hampshire will seek to reduce LCOE 11 percent by integrating and certifying the many turbine electrical and control components required for a complete wind turbine installation into a "1-box" approach, while adding an energy storage option for wind turbines with a power rating up to 20 kilowatts.
  • Northern Power Systems of Barre, Vermont will seek to reduce LCOE 14 percent by developing a larger rotor design, expanding from 24 to 32 meters in diameter, for the flagship NPS 100 wind turbine system. R&D efforts will include detailed tradeoff studies and analysis evaluating impacts on the whole rotor, control system, and drivetrain due to the increase in rotor size.
  • SonSight Wind of Grayson, Georgia will conduct prototype testing of its low-wind-speed 3 kW wind turbine design. Efforts will focus on improving power performance and safety and function testing, as well as control system testing for optimization of its advanced furling design, which regulates how the turbine operates in high winds.
  • Star Wind Turbines LLC of East Dorset, Vermont will test its 5-bladed, 10 kW wind turbine system design to national performance and safety standards with the goal of achieving product certification and verifying its levelized cost projections.
  • Xzeres Wind Corp of Portland, Oregon will seek to reduce LCOE by over 25 percent by developing a microgrid-compatible turbine controller engineered for increased performance and integration with emerging distributed energy resource technologies. The components of the next-generation controller system will be consolidated into a single enclosure for ease of installation and reduced labor costs. 

The latest DOE distributed wind market report highlighted some bright spots for the industry. By the end of 2016, the installed capacity of small wind turbines (up to 100 kilowatts) nationwide was just under 1 gigawatt. U.S. manufacturers continue to dominate domestic sales of small wind turbines, and the export market is strong. Between 2014 and 2016, U.S.-based manufacturers exported more than $240 million in small wind turbines.

Push to reduce costs, embrace certification

Working with industry, the Department of Energy discovered it would be possible to improve the performance and reduce the cost of small wind turbines, according to Jose Zayas, former director of DOE’s Wind Energy Technologies Office. This led to the creation of the CIP grant program, as well as a movement toward industry certification.

Under IRS guidance issued in January 2015, only small turbines (100 kilowatts or less) that met certification standards defined by the American Wind Energy Association and International Electrotechnical Commission were eligible for the 30 percent federal Investment Tax Credit. That tax credit expired on December 31, 2016. (We'll have more on this in an upcoming story.)

One of the goals of NREL’s competitiveness grant program is to increase the number of certified small turbines on the market to 40 by 2020. As of August 2017, 14 small turbine models have been certified, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

Small wind pioneer aims to ratchet down costs

Fifth-round CIP grant recipient Bergey Windpower demonstrates the industry’s likely path forward: a relentless focus on achieving cost reductions. Bergey is an industry pioneer, having exported small wind turbines since 1980. In an interview, President Mike Bergey said the company aims to reduce installation and total system costs so its turbines can compete head-to-head against rooftop solar.

Bergey Windpower is already using a fourth-round CIP grant to fund the development of a 15-kilowatt turbine, the Excel 15, which it plans to have certified and on the market by the first quarter of 2018. Bergey Windpower’s fifth-round CIP grant is targeted to reduce installation costs for the Excel 15.

Customers prefer a tower supported without guidewires, said Bergey. For the company’s existing turbines, however, this has typically meant building a substantial foundation -- digging a hole as large as a swimming pool and pouring in 60 cubic yards of concrete plus reinforcing bars, at a cost of $12,000.

For the Excel 15, Bergey Windpower plans to use helical piles, which are power-installed screw anchors that would take the place of concrete, enabling foundations to be built faster and at lower cost. The company started with a blank sheet of paper when engineering the new turbine, said Bergey. “Our 15-kilowatt turbine is our effort to engineer our way out of being behind the eight ball due to cheap Asian solar modules.”

Bergey Windpower’s primary market is rural residential customers with at least an acre or more of property. In such conditions, said Mike Bergey, the company expects rooftop solar PV to generate power for around $3.75 per watt installed, or about 13 cents per kilowatt-hour on an LCOE basis. The LCOE for Bergey Windpower’s 10-kilowatt turbine, meanwhile, is 22 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Bergey Windpower believes it can cut that in half with its next-generation 15-kilowatt turbine. “With more cost-effective installation, we think we can get below 10 cents per kilowatt-hour,” said Bergey.