Innovative financing for the deployment of wind turbines

There are companies in the US now applying the rooftop solar model to wind by installing and maintaining systems at little to no upfront cost to the customer. Diane Cardwell writes in the New York Times about latest developments.

 

Wind Power Spreads Through Turbines for Lease

Three years ago, Ed Doody and his brothers, Kevin and Rich, installed a wind turbine at the dairy farm they operate here, looking to cut electric bills. They were so happy with the results that each got a turbine for his home, visible from the farm, which overlooks rolling hills and orchards.

“They are just the runningest little things you ever did see,” Kevin Doody said last month of the home turbines, standing near the red-and-white barns that house their 350 Holsteins. Since installing the turbine about a year ago, he said, his electric bill has essentially “gone to zero.”

The Doody brothers are but a few of the small-business owners and rural residents around the country who are beginning to turn to wind in their efforts to save money and embrace renewable energy. Although rooftop solar systems have spread rapidly throughout the country over the last eight years — spurred by providers offering home systems free — wind energy has generally remained the province of industrial-scale operations providing power to utilities and big businesses.

But now, a start-up called United Wind is applying the rooftop solar model to wind, installing and maintaining systems at little to no upfront cost to the customer. As with the solar systems from companies like SolarCity and Sunrun, customers sign long-term agreements to buy the electricity the systems produce at prices set below those from their local utility. Most of the company’s customers, including the Doodys, are in rural areas like central and western New York, but the firm is rapidly expanding its reach.

The company, which was formed in 2013 in New York through the combination of a leading distributor of small turbines and a digital site-assessment business, has raised about $40 million in project financing — including $13.5 million announced in October from the NY Green Bank, a state-sponsored investment fund, and U.S. Bank — and signed about 125 leases. Executives said they were in talks for a significantly larger investment that would allow United Wind to develop about 1,000 more projects in the Midwest.

“The small-wind market was small — it hadn’t really taken off the way solar had,” said Russell Tencer, the chief executive, who founded the site-assessment company, Wind Analytics, in 2009. “What we realized was that with that intelligence and software we could offer that same type of one-stop-shop solution that solar has packaged to finance solar.”

Distributors have sold small and medium-size wind turbines for the last three decades. Their spread has been slow, although there are signs that may be changing. According to a report this year from Navigant Research, worldwide revenue from the turbines — defined as anything under 500 kilowatts — will grow to nearly $2.4 billion in 2023 from $1 billion in 2015, in part spurred by the development of the lease model. Still, the United States is expected to remain far behind leaders like Britain, China and Italy, with only $216 million in revenue by 2023.

Over the decades, the American market has waxed and waned, said Jennifer Jenkins, executive director of the Distributed Wind Energy Association, a trade group that focuses on wind energy that is generated and used on site. But the market has grown from something originally aimed at remote, off-grid and island communities to something that the group hopes can reach 30 gigawatts worth of installations by 2030, up from 906 megawatts, reflecting 74,000 turbines installed across the 50 states by the end of 2014, according to the Department of Energy.

Having recognizable companies like Honda, Walmart and Anheuser-Busch install wind turbines at highly visible facilities helps, making distributed wind a more mainstream symbol of green energy, Ms. Jenkins said. Turbines are also sprouting up on office buildings and at locations as diverse as Logan Airport in Boston, Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and even at the Eiffel Tower, where two turbines are nestled.

But United Wind’s leasing approach is also a big part of reaching that goal. “I think they’re going to transform the market, and we’re going to be able to get to these potential numbers that we’ve been forecasting for a long time,” she said.

The finance community is beginning to see it the same way. New York’s Green Bank is supporting the company’s efforts with a $4 million loan to help finance construction because the business model seems viable.

“We only want to support those transaction types where we think there is a bridge to somewhere rather than a bridge to nowhere,” said Alfred Griffin, the bank’s president.

Toward that end, United Wind is going after a specific band of the market. The company has installed 10- to 100-kilowatt machines and focuses on rural farms, homes and small businesses with enough wind, space and demand for electricity to make the economics make sense, but where the likelihood of community opposition is low.

The turbines are much smaller and, often mounted on open-lattice towers, can appear lighter than the behemoths typically used on large wind farms. Still, they can be noisy and create a visual intrusion on a landscape. The Doody brothers said they had heard little objection.

“We want to focus on these rural areas where it fits perfectly into the setting, and it’s not going to be like this suburban housing development where people can complain,” Mr. Tencer said.

Customers typically see savings of at least 10 percent over power provided by a public utility and, as with solar leases, can save even more if they prepay all or part of their contract to avoid the annual rate increases, 1.9 percent in United Wind’s contracts. In all, a typical homeowner will save $20,000 and a typical farm $200,000 over the life of the lease, generally 20 years.

The Doodys, who did not want to offer specifics on their savings, said the installations had proved successful, covering two-thirds of the power needed to run their twice-daily milking operation and producing even more electricity than anticipated for the farm and their homes. Rather than send the excess back to the utility for a small fee — the Doodys say they earn about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour but pay 14 cents to buy power — Kevin Doody recently installed on-demand hot water to use it up. “I just didn’t like the thought of giving it back to them,” he said.

And the home turbine has cut the cost of running Ed Doody’s swimming pool and practically eliminated the need for his wood-burning boiler system.

“I’m getting older every year, and it just gets tougher” to cut wood and feed the machine, he said. “It’s dirty and messy, and you have to maintain it — every six or eight hours you have to go throw more wood in the thing. So that’s been an unseen advantage.”

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