New Quixote tilts at turbines
Hugues Leblanc on the roof of his apartment with his homemade windmill and solar panels, in Montreal, Tuesday August 25, 2009. He says that he gets about 100 watts of power from the setup.
Photograph by: Phil Carpenter, The Gazette
MONTREAL–Hugues Leblanc has spent three years at war with a wind turbine.
His first model, an AirX horizontal-axis unit that he bought and installed in 2006, caused his ceiling to quake and filled his apartment with an alien whooping sound – “like a swirling noise, woowoow owowoow,” he says.
Leblanc, an orderly at a Montreal geriatric hospital, has risked his life to make emergency repairs, climbing a steep ladder in high winds, and he fried a wattage inverter by turning on a vacuum cleaner.
Before long, the AirX’s propeller blades began whipping off.
“Once on a very bad wintry night,” he recounts, a blade came crashing down on his balcony.
Not to mention the violence done to his wallet: Leblanc has spent about $4,000 on turbines and parts. And for what? He saves a measly $5 or $10 a month on his electricity bill.
“I’ll never recoup the money,” Leblanc says, only a touch of defeat in his voice. “It’s not for nothing they have those hydro dams.”
Say what you want about his quixotic experiment, Leblanc, 50, is on the cusp of a movement of urban “self-generators,” city dwellers who use the natural elements to power their toasters and televisions.
It’s a movement that has had considerable traction in places with lots of wind and sun, like Cyprus, where 93 per cent of buildings have solar water heaters.
But it’s a tougher sell in Montreal, where the sun shines a mere 160 days a year and the westerlies poke along at about 15 kilometres an hour.
Nevertheless, Hydro-Québec recently introduced a “net metering rate option” rewarding homeowners who feed homemade electricity into the grid with a discount on their hydro bills.
Under incentive-based programs in Europe and Ontario, power companies pay self-generators up to 84 cents per kilowatt hour, a policy that has won widespread support while stoking the emerging clean-energy market.
Similar programs have popped up in the United States, in such places as Gainesville, Fla., and Sacramento, Calif.
Still, for Montrealers like Leblanc, the rewards of microgeneration don’t yet measure up to the hassles.
Sitting in his bunker-like living room, which is laced with cables and stacked with four 60-pound batteries, Leblanc recounts his travails.
Back in 2006, he spent $400 on an AirX, but the 400-watt unit was noisy and unreliable and couldn’t handle the city’s turbulent wind conditions.
Today, the hobbyist uses a unit he jerry-rigged himself in combination with a trio of solar panels.
Together, they supply about 10 per cent of the electricity he uses.
“I could run the whole apartment for an hour or two, but then I’d have to re-charge,” he says. “The worst is the toaster.”
Leblanc says he would need another 10 turbines, 300 panels and 60 batteries to produce and store the 2,000 watts needed to power his two-bedroom pad.
But according to some, the urban windfarm of the future looks nothing like Leblanc’s propeller-and-battery-based system.
Several U.S. companies have been testing helix-shaped turbines based on the early-20th-century designs of Finnish inventor Sigurd J. Savonius, with promising results.
“They’re like little wind flowers,” says Toby Kinkaid of Portland, Ore., who spent 10 years developing the Helyx, which sits upright and twirls in both directions.
“In my opinion, propellers in the city will never catch on.”
Kinkaid says the Helyx, available in several colours “to match the motif of your home,” doesn’t make noise, throw blades or kill birds (a serious problem with horizontal-axis turbines), and produces about the same amount of electricity as Leblanc’s unit.
The design has already been chosen to power Portland’s light-rail system; a commercial line of Helyxes is set to launch in 2010.
Kinkaid says the Helyx faces a strong industry bias in favour of the more familiar propeller design.
But the larger challenge for microgeneration is the reluctance of power corporations to let individuals feed into the system.
“Utilities are afraid of change,” Kinkaid says. “It’s outside of their normal comfort zone, so they’re a little resistant.”
Kinkaid, who also heads Solardyne.com, an online retailer of energy products, believes that microfarms will eventually take over the work of supplying power to cities.
“Distributed generation will change the whole paradigm,” he says.
Until then, Montrealers will have to rely on Hydro-Québec or risk fisticuffs with a moving propeller.