Wind power from utility poles?
February 28, 2007 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Would it be feasible (/cost efficient) to put small wind turbines on existing utility poles to generate power?

I've tried googling this idea but I can't find anything specifically about the subject. It seems as if a windy location could have small wind turbines designed to put atop existing utility poles and feed back into the grid, eventually becoming profitable (?).

I've discussed this idea w/ some semi-knowledgeable folks and understand some of the difficulties (eg, getting back to the grid for each), but I'd like to ask here for a general discussion. With the NIMBY outcry being a major deterrent, simply adding a small windmill to the already ugly utility poles may be acceptable. Personally, if I drove into a town w/ this I'd want to move there, but that's just me.

Or, is this happening anywhere?
posted by jacobjacobs to Technology (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
seems to me there are several problems with this:
  1. Extra stress on the ultility pole frame. They weren't designed for this.
  2. Height. Wind turbines are usually pretty damn tall. The average utility pole, even the high tension ones, aren't high enough to get up into the consisitently windy areas.
  3. as you already mentioned, getting the power back to the grid. I think power is usually generated at low voltage and then stepped up for transport. All of that takes equipment: tansformers, etc.
  4. Cost. It's still just too damn cheap to burn stuff to make electricity.

posted by cosmicbandito at 8:55 AM on February 28, 2007


I think from an installation and maintenance standpoint it is cheaper to build larger generators than many smaller ones. Locations for wind generators are also picked to take advantage of the best potential for wind whereas your average power pole location is not.
posted by JJ86 at 9:07 AM on February 28, 2007


Below a certain size, wind mills don't produce any power at all because there isn't enough force to drive a generator. The larger a turbine is, the more efficient it is, and at the size you're talking about the efficiency would be so poor that effectively there would be no yield.

And if you put a windmill on top of every power pole, you're going to kill a hell of a lot of birds.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:17 AM on February 28, 2007


Cost. It's still just too damn cheap to burn stuff to make electricity.

That's the real problem with alternative energies today. They just aren't cost effective yet, and that's not even talking about technologies that are ill considered (eg. hydrogen) or not very scalable to widespread use (maybe biodiesel or ethanol).

I'm not saying alternative energy shouldn't be researched and eventually fossil fuels will cost enough for them to become practical.

I was recently on the coast in Texas and I was struck by how windy it was there. Coasts in general seem to have reasonably strong and consistent winds and would be good places for wind generation, if the people that lived there didn't mind "unsightly" wind turbines. I've seen wind turbines near Cheyenne, Wyoming and, like cosmicbandito said, they need to be quite tall.
posted by 6550 at 9:18 AM on February 28, 2007


Back when I knew something about the state of wind turbines, what I saw was that getting maximally cost-effective wind energy depended a lot on good siting. You pick a spot that has good, consistent wind—pretty steady, pretty strong, not too strong and not prone to awful gusts—on usable terrain with limited NIMBY potential. And then, with improving turbine technology, you could start to have something pushing in the direction of competitive energy generation.

Just dropping turbines willy-nilly into existing infrastructure will probably never make sense.
posted by cortex at 9:24 AM on February 28, 2007


Sorry to threadjack a bit here, but as 6550 states: not even talking about technologies that are ill considered (eg. hydrogen), can you explain why hydrogen is ill considered. It seems to me that this would provide great flexibility as the energy to create (used loosely here) the hydrogen can come from anywhere, be it coal, oil, nuclear, etc. Is it that there is too much energy wasted between storing and using?
posted by chrisroberts at 9:53 AM on February 28, 2007


Technical issues are only part of the problem. From a legal/rights/liability POV, the current owners/maintainers of the existing utility poles would probably not like this idea.
posted by cenoxo at 9:54 AM on February 28, 2007


chrisroberts, hydrogen basically takes too much energy to produce, compared to directly using that energy elsewhere. That's the big problem that no one invested in hydrogen is talking about.

The most efficient method, AFAIK, is by cracking fossil fuel with steam. This produces hydrogen, as well as CO2, but it isn't as good a use as directly using the fossil fuel to produce energy. Hydrogen can be also be made with electricity and water but that takes vast amounts of energy compared to what is obtained and, again, it would be a better use to use the electricity directly.

There are some specific uses for hydrogen that make sense but, by and large, it's no solution to energy problems.
posted by 6550 at 10:02 AM on February 28, 2007


6550 & jacobjacogs, wind is no longer a fringe technology. It is economically viable at a fairly large scale, especially with various government incentives (and probably nothing as odious as the subsidies behind corn ethanol).

Texas utilities are bringing on a lot of windpower right now, but they are doing it with big turbines on big towers. The big towers help get the turbines in stronger and steadier wind. The big turbines are more cost effective for a variety of reasons.

Hydrogen is just a transportation and storage technology.
posted by Good Brain at 10:15 AM on February 28, 2007


Steven C. Den Beste writes "Below a certain size, wind mills don't produce any power at all because there isn't enough force to drive a generator."

This is untrue, it may not be the most efficient generation in a systems sense but windmills as small as a couple metres are commercially available and economically viable. Heck prior to electrification in the early 20th century there were thousands of small windmills running generators and water pumps all across North America. Some had swept area diameters as small as a metre.
posted by Mitheral at 10:25 AM on February 28, 2007


Feasible, yes. But certainly not cost-effective and probably not even emissions-effective, especially once you consider the manufacturing, transportation, installation, and maintenance (both cost and emissions).
posted by JacksonEsquire at 11:16 AM on February 28, 2007


It might be feasible, at some point, to use individual wind turbines for water electrolysis, ie, to generate H2 and O2 for fuel cells. Electrolysis cells aren't picky, so there is much less loss than with all the signal conditioning that is necessary to get grid-friendly 60 Hz AC into the power lines.
posted by janell at 12:02 PM on February 28, 2007


That was my idea for (the now dubious) Since Sliced Bread competition, too. It got panned - look at the reviews.
posted by unixrat at 1:07 PM on February 28, 2007


Okay. So what about mini water turbines on rainwater downspouts?
posted by Alt F4 at 1:07 PM on February 28, 2007


Sorry to threadjack a bit here, but as 6550 states: not even talking about technologies that are ill considered (eg. hydrogen), can you explain why hydrogen is ill considered.

Hydrogen is not an energy source. It is an energy storage mechanism. Energy needs to be produced elsewhere (via wind, oil, nukes, etc.) to then be stored as hydrogen.
posted by PEAK OIL at 1:46 PM on February 28, 2007


6550 seems to be thinking in a rather linear fashion about hydrogen. Seems to me that using solar/wave/wind has a time-dependency problem (which can, granted, be minimized by greatly increasing the size of the grid) -- and that thinking of hydrogen as a storage method for renewable electricity isn't such a dumb idea.

Plus this could theoretically get you somewhere on the currently-intractable problem of vehicles.

Seriously, why do I never hear this line of argument, ever?
posted by genghis at 2:09 PM on February 28, 2007


Hydrogen is not an energy source. It is an energy storage mechanism. Energy needs to be produced elsewhere (via wind, oil, nukes, etc.) to then be stored as hydrogen.

This was exactly my point and why I was asking if too much energy was wasted in producing the hydrogen. If it's a bad storage medium, that's fine, but how bad is it. I hear all these statements saying that hydrogen is just a pipe dream, but if something like nuclear power really took off, wouldn't hydrogen be a great way to move that energy to vehicles and such?
posted by chrisroberts at 2:09 PM on February 28, 2007


Oh, look. Snap.
posted by genghis at 2:10 PM on February 28, 2007


Micro wind turbines are getting more feasible. "[T]he fans will spin even in a very slow wind of a few miles an hour."

I heard they are installing tiny wind turbines on the vertical face of the new federal building in downtown San Francisco. I couldn't find any link with more details, but I did find a few details about putting tiny wind turbines on buildings.
posted by salvia at 6:47 PM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


In a related vein, I recall reading about an invention about a decade ago to harness the wind generated by passing automobiles. It would be installed in the medians of highways and, with storage, generate enough electricity to power the street lights for some portion of the dark hours. It seemed a brilliant idea to me at the time. I don't know what ever became of it.
posted by kindall at 9:50 PM on February 28, 2007


kindall, this is an article about the idea. It was flamed at Treehugger by visitors b/c it is obviously oil dependent. Meh, I still like the idea, you're given lemons, you make lemonade. Cars are going to be around, they're getting cleaner, maybe we should remove our noses from the upright position and also think about not wasting energy opportunities.
posted by jacobjacobs at 6:30 AM on March 1, 2007


This was at either Ohio State or U of Michigan a lot longer ago than 2005.
posted by kindall at 12:29 PM on March 1, 2007


I heard Buckminster Fuller said this, that a windmill atop every powerline tower would negate the need for power plants. Don't have a cite though, sorry (it might be apocryphal).
posted by Rash at 2:55 PM on March 1, 2007


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