Energy independence: Not that simple.

A few weeks ago, I was walking around the neighborhood big-box home improvement store, when I saw a sign that said “wind turbines.” Even though I know it’s wildly impractical where I live, I was briefly enticed by the idea of a cash-and-carry renewable energy system I could load up in the car and take home.

I was a little disappointed to see that the wind turbine was actually one of these things that helps ventilate your house.

That doesn’t mean the ambitious homeowner in search of a wind turbine is out of luck. A story in the Detroit News this week highlights the Honeywell Wind Turbine (different from the one in the picture), which you can purchase at a handful of Ace Hardware and True Value locations (by special order, I’m guessing).

The turbines, which were created by Muskegon, Michigan-based WindTronics, have been around for a couple of years. They eliminate a lot of the noise/vibration/reliability problems that small-scale turbines can have, but they’re still not exactly cheap.

One of the turbines cost 84-year-old Ted Klein of Wayne, Michigan, about $8,200 to install, according to the News. Klein says he expects the turbine to eventually pay for itself.

Will it?

The turbine can generate up to 1,500 kWh of power per year. Michigan’s retail price of electricity is about 12 cents per kWh, which means the turbine would pay a return of about $180 a year.

At that rate, it will take 45 years for the turbine to pay for itself. Of course, that’s a simplistic calculation – electricity rates will go up, the turbine won’t always be producing its maximum output, and it’s possible the turbine will increase (or decrease) the value of the home it’s installed on.

Nevertheless, if the turbine does pay for itself, it doesn’t seem likely that it will happen within Klein’s lifetime.

The story brought to mind a piece from the Grand Rapids Press from earlier this year, about a couple in their 60s who did the math on installing solar panels on their home. George and Julia Bauer determined that the payback for their installation would be closer to 12 years.

And in a 2009 Popular Mechanics article on the Honeywell turbine, Ron Stimmel, a small-wind advocate for the American Wind Energy Association, cautioned that solar is a better option in urban areas.

“If you have a solar panel and you put it under a maple tree, the sunlight will still come through, but [the tree is] blocking a lot of the resource,” Stimmel says. The same goes for wind whipping through obstacles in a neighborhood like tall houses and walls or barriers to nearby highways. “Computational fluid dynamics studies for individual rooftops might be necessary for each of these systems,” he says. And in a dense city, “the best rooftop system you can get is an array of solar panels. It’s simply a matter of physics.”

That’s not to say there aren’t applications for these innovative small-scale turbines – especially in rural, off-the-grid locations.

And as for 84-year-old Ted Klein, focusing solely on the payback period ignores a simpler explanation for the purchase: The man wants a wind turbine on his roof. If he spent $8,200 on, say, a used Cadillac, would we be concerned about whether he makes his money back?

Photo by Adrian Accaira via Creative Commons

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.