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Wind power gets urban-friendly Add to ...

The North York home of Sharolyn Vettese has an unusual piece of art in the backyard. It looks a bit like an old-fashioned farm windmill, but with copper-coloured blades shaped like flattened peanuts. What makes this strange sculpture even more unusual is that it's a functioning wind turbine.

Ms. Vettese and her father, Alfred Mathieu, created the Wind Dancer as a solution to many of the problems that keep wind power out of residential areas. It doesn't need a tall tower. It works at low wind speeds. It's designed to bear up to the turbulent winds caused by buildings. And, most importantly, it's pretty. At the very least, it's a change from the three-bladed turbines going up all over Canada.

"My father, who is my partner and co-designer, he grew up on a farm in Alberta and there were a lot of windmills like that for pumping water for cattle," she says.

Most wind turbine designers talk like engineers. Ms. Vettese is different. She talks about design and aesthetics, too. Wind is a force of nature, and to harness its energy, she wanted a design that would reflect nature. The eight gently curved blades of the Wind Dancer are one example.

"I was having breakfast on my front porch in Toronto, and saw the maple keys coming down, and noticed how perfectly they landed," she says. She took the keys to her father, who has degrees in engineering, chemistry and a PhD in agriculture, and he concurred. But the design isn't just there to look pretty, it's practical, too. "Because the end of the blade is bigger, there's a bigger surface area to catch the wind," she says.

Small wind turbines have been popular with cottagers and boaters for years. But they've never really caught on in cities. Trees and buildings block the wind and make it so turbulent that it can wear a turbine down quickly. Traditionally, they've also needed tall, unsightly towers that sometimes draw complaints from neighbours. And the fast-spinning blades can be noisy, or even dangerous if they come off.

Ron Flynn, a homeowner in Alberton, Prince Edward Island, learned some of these lessons the hard way. He had to lobby hard to get his small turbine up in 2007. In the end, he got few hassles about the turbine and tower, but even his two-acre lot on the outskirts of town was poorly suited for wind power.

"It went up and didn't cause much turmoil, and went down again without much fuss," he says. The problem? "Not enough wind to sustain it." Trees on either side made the site too calm.

The Wind Dancer, which won a Toronto Design Exchange design award in 2007, is part of a new breed of small turbines that have been designed to work in places with slower, more turbulent winds. And they're catching on.

Toronto developer Shane Baghai recently bought two Wind Dancer turbines from Vettese's company, Wind Simplicity. They're installed on his St. Gabriel Village condominium building on Shepherd Avenue East in Toronto.

"I love to look at them," he says. Mr. Baghai was an early proponent of environmental design and solar power, but was unhappy with the performance and economics of small wind turbines until he found the Wind Dancer. "You truly appreciate the blending of natural forces with this wonderful gadget. It really does dance with the wind. I like that."

He also likes the fact that it's virtually silent and doesn't cause the sort of vibrations he experienced with other small turbines, which spin at very high speeds. But most of all, he's happy to have found a small turbine that makes economic sense.

In the past, the turbines have been too small to be economical. The ones he bought from Ms. Vettese are available in sizes from 3 kilowatts to 23 kilowatts. But power and design come at a price. They range from $27,000 to $69,000, not including the tower.

Mr. Baghai still prefers solar to wind for urban applications. But he clearly is thrilled with his two new turbines. And aesthetics have a lot to do with it. After all, if an upscale condo is going to spend big bucks on designer faucets and hardware, why not spend a few bucks on a designer windmill?

Unlike other turbines, this one also comes with an option to get a custom paintjob. It will cost an extra $6,000, and is most likely to be bought by a company that wants to tie green power to its corporate brand, says Ms. Vettese.

If the price tag is too steep, there are other options, and they too eschew the standard three-bladed design. Mr. Fournier points to the Wind Terra, a 1.2 Kw turbine that mounts directly to the roof of a house - no tower required.

Most turbines have blades that spin vertically. The Wind Terra spins horizontally, which reduces damage from turbulent winds, he says. And, like the Wind Dancer, it works well at low wind speeds. It might not be as pretty as its Toronto cousin, but it's not particularly ugly and only costs about $11,000 installed.

"In the wind business, height is everything," he says. The higher the turbine, the steadier the wind. "What you're saving in this case is the cost of the tower."

When wind blows over a roof, it speeds up a bit, and that gives the Wind Terra a bit of a boost. It only needs winds of four to five miles an hour to work, Mr. Fournier says. And because of its slower movement, it's also quiet.

Another option is the Skystream 3.7, a 1.8-Kw turbine with scimitar-shaped blades. It costs about $13,000 to $15,000 including the tower and installation. It's designed to tie directly into the power grid, and has an inverter right up near the blades (instead of on the ground, as is the case with most turbines). This has the advantage of cutting the amount of electricity lost when it's transmitted through wires to the ground.

Because these turbines all use shorter towers, the safety and visibility concerns that have kept wind power out of cities are greatly reduced, and the door seems to now be open to small urban windmills. Tying them into the electrical grid is becoming easier, too, with new smart meters and policies allowing people to sell power from such small turbines.

But the systems still need a battery bank if they're going to be used to provide emergency power in case of a blackout, and that will add to the price tag.

There's the added bonus that, with Wind Dancer, homeowners in tony neighbourhoods can finally buy their very own designer wind turbine. With a design award to back them up, they'll be able to brag about their functional new art at cocktail parties.

"It really shows a reaction to the forces of nature visibly. You see it," says Mr. Baghai.

Special to The Globe and Mail

 

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