What is small wind power?

It is the kinetic energy of the wind converted into electricity by small wind turbines (300 kW and less)

There are two main types of small wind turbines:

  • horizontal axis wind turbine
  • vertical axis wind turbine

To learn more about small wind power, see the data sheet [PDF 1.3 Mb]

Current state of knowledge

After a slowdown in 2013, wind power development continued to grow in 2014, with a record 52 GW of new installed capacity. By year end, global installed wind power capacity totalled 370 GW.

Large wind dominates the market, that is, wind turbines connected to electric power grids and operated by electric power companies. Today’s development efforts focus on building wind turbines with a capacity of at least 2 MW. These large turbines are designed for integration into an electric power grid, a trend that will only intensify.

Small wind (<100 kW), on the other hand, is much less widespread, and the small wind turbines that produce it are owned by small power producers. Total installed small wind capacity in 2013 was 755 MW, produced by 870,000 turbines, a 12% increase over 2012. China is home to more than 41% of these facilities, the United States 30% and the United Kingdom 15%. Average installed capacity of these small wind turbines seems to be increasing, but not by much—from 0.66 kW in 2010 to 0.85 kW in 2013.

Supported by government strategies, the large wind industry has grown substantially over the last ten years. Small wind, on the other hand, is virtually non-existent in Québec.

Wind potential

Wind is a very plentiful resource and it is widely distributed throughout the world. Studies have demonstrated that wind could meet the global demand for power many times over. However, constraints of all sorts limit development possibilities, and market forecasts remain the best indicators of the real potential for wind power development.

In 2013, the International Energy Agency forecast that total installed wind capacity would reach 611 GW by 2020 and 1,684 GW by 2050. Forecasts for the year 2014 have already been surpassed. The Global Wind Energy Council’s forecasts are even higher, with predictions of a total installed wind capacity of 801 GW in 2020 and 4,042 GW by 2050. As for small wind, the World Wind Energy Association predicts a total installed small wind capacity of 2 GW by 2020. In other words, expectations are that small wind’s market share will remain marginal.

Wind conditions are favorable in Québec, making it one of the best regions in North America for development of wind power. However, despite the interest in small wind, its potential remains largely unharnessed because of unfavorable market conditions.

Output and costs

Theoretically, wind turbines can convert to electricity up to 59% of the kinetic energy of the wind. In practice, however, the average is much lower. In this respect, small wind fares worse than large wind, as its development is never the object of major technological innovations or investments. Annual utilization factors average between 15 and 25%.

The cost of small wind generation is difficult to establish because the price of the equipment varies widely. In addition, it all depends on a key variable: the quality of the winds at the site of the facility. Furthermore, small wind turbines are not always certified, because of the limited financial capacity of many of the manufacturers. Without a basis for comparison, it is thus impossible at the time of purchase to make an informed technological choice and to obtain guarantees of the desired performance. The way things are now, it is very difficult to know the cost (¢/kWh) of the electricity produced by small wind. Given existing market conditions, there is no indication that small grid-connected wind facilities could become an economically viable option in Québec in the short term. Off grid, however, small wind is an excellent option for a wide variety of uses.

Advantages and disadvantages

  • Often cost effective in remote areas, far from the power grid
  • In remote areas, can be used in tandem with other energy options, such as a diesel generator
  • Energy independence: self-generation for residential, institutional or agricultural purposes or for small communities or small businesses
  • Variable production (including times when little or no electricity is produced, especially if only one wind turbine is installed) that is difficult to predict with limited means

Sustainable development

  • Zero interference with television and radar signals, and low electromagnetic wave emissions
  • Zero emissions of greenhouse gases and air contaminants during operation
  • Small environmental footprint over the life cycle
  • Significant visual impact at some sites: successful integration with the environment is crucial
  • Noise pollution varies depending on the type of equipment and the host environment
  • Bird and bat fatality rates lower than with other types of infrastructure or attributable to domestic cats