by Léopold Salzenstein
The production of wind energy is usually associated with big companies, but producing energy can also be done on a much smaller scale. All around the United Kingdom, the organization V3 Power offers classes and workshops with the objective of building a functional and efficient wind turbine. The expansion of this type of grass root project is fuelled by various factors.
The story begins in 1978, when Hugh Piggott designed his first wind turbine. “My main focus is to make the designs easy to build, reliable and efficient in low wind speeds,” writes the former Scottish farmer on his website.
After spending almost forty years learning about wind energy, Hugh Piggott has become a specialist in wind power. Piggott’s in-depth knowledge, compiled in his Wind Turbine Recipe Books , serves as the basis of many workshops worldwide.
“I believe that lots of small communities taking action adds up to big change”, says Caro, who took part in a two day workshop organised by V3 Power in Edinburgh last May. V3 Power is a worker’s cooperative based in Nottingham and created in 2006. The organisation’s aim is to empower local communities while educating people about renewable energy.
V3 Power thus organises workshops where participants are introduced to the various skills necessary to build a Piggott windmill. In Edinburgh, around fifteen people built a wind turbine with a diameter of 1,8 meters in only a couple of days.
How do you build a wind turbine?
“I liked the idea of building your own wind turbine from first principles,” says Matthew, “because it’s a challenge that requires metalwork, woodwork, composites, mechanics and electrical skills”.
The construction workshops, which are also available in France via the Tripalium network, combine a theoretical and a practical approach. First, participants are introduced to aerodynamics, electric work and the wider functioning of the turbine. Second, they participate in different workshops ranging from wood-carving the blades, welding the turbine’s support and connecting it to an electric box. These skills can be transferred to many other activities.
The course duration depends on the size of the turbine. While building a 1.2m diameter turbine takes around three days, workshops can last up to ten days for a bigger, 3,6m windmill. The cost also varies, ranging from £2.500 to £11.000. Divided between participants, this charge serves to remunerate the classes’ instructors but also to buy the necessary materials.
Building your own wind turbine is relatively accessible. “The use of simple tools and materials made it seem possible to repeat the build as an individual”, explains Louis, who is planning on making another turbine with his college.
While essential components are sold on V3 Power’s website, it is also possible to use reclaimed materials.
Installed in a windy field
The course ends by assembling the windmill, ready for use. Due to the absence of a standard Piggott model, every design is adaptable to the situation. Every wind turbine is unique (some are even named by their owners) and fosters cooperation and mutual support in the group, as they adapt to a specific environment. “It was very empowering.”, says Caro. This long term environmental activist valued the open-mindedness of the workshop: “I feel that it is [usually] hard for women to get involved in metalworking and welding, as we are generally not encouraged”.
Every project mirrors the creativity of its participants and what could be a mere instrument of energy production often becomes a unique work of art. When finished, the wind turbine is usually installed in a windy field, either belonging to one of the participants or to the local community.
With several thousands of manuals sold, hundreds of participants and a growing global community (which recently held its third conference in Patagonia), wind turbine construction seems to be on a roll.
While installing a wind turbine can be financially profitable in the most remote areas, the financial interest of such a project remains minimal in most cases. “A typical home uses about 3-400 kilowatt-hour per month and you would need a good, high wind site with one or two of the largest sized machines to produce this much”, Hugh relativizes.
“It’s good to have a mix of energy sources as the wind is fickle.”, he adds.
In good condition, a small turbine of 1,2m diameter produces around 33 KwH per month, against 296KwH for a bigger model of 3,6m (PDF). The energy production of a single turbine therefore only covers a small part of the energy needed by a typical household.
Besides, while it is possible to connect the turbine to the grid via the purchase of an approved inverter, selling the electricity produced is not profitable. Indeed, the selling cost of wind produced KwH remains three time cheaper than solar produced KwH. “I would not recommend building small wind turbine to save money”, says Hugh Piggott, “I love using renewable energy for many reasons, but saving money has never been among them.”
Taking control back on energy production
“I am very concerned about anthropogenic climate change,” says Caro. Protecting the environment come as the first reason for people to participate in a V3 Power workshop. Isabel, another student, adds “I would like to do my bit to reduce reliance on fossil fuels [and prevent global warming]”. With renewable energy beating fossil fuel energy for the first time, wind and solar seem indeed to be the way forward.
“I am distrustful of big energy companies and would like to move energy production closer to the individual or community”, states Isabel. Britain’s energy system is put forward by many participants to explain their interest in small scale energy production.
The current model “relies on huge companies [which have] immense lobbying power”, she says. Building a wind turbine is also a way to take energy control back from corporations and enhance local autonomy and independence.
Exploring alternative energies:
Students, pensioners, engineers…V3 Power’s workshops attract a population keen to explore new ways of producing energy. These type of projects are becoming more and more common around the UK and indeed, the world.
Climate change raises awareness on the true cost of fossil fuel and the necessity for a quick energy transition. In this situation, renewable energy offers a viable alternative, which links environmental action and energy autonomy.
In this case, why not building your own windmill?