Can Small Wind Turbines Contribute to Large Renewable Goals?

microgrid using wind and solar
Mongabay India
Chennai, India

Can Small Wind Turbines Contribute to Large Renewable Goals?

Senthil Kumar, a Chennai-based software engineer, recently experienced the difficulties brought on by hours of power cuts first-hand, on a visit to his hometown Sundarapandiam near Madurai, in southern Tamil Nadu. “I knew my parents were facing power cuts. But only when I visited, I realized how hard it was,” he recalls.  Now, he is looking for a renewable energy solution to deal with frequent power cuts.

His hometown is not the only one that faced power outages this year. India went through a severe power crisis in April, as a result of a coal shortage. On April 29, an energy shortage was observed — a massive 214 million units (MU), according to Power System Operation Corporation Limited (PSOCL). Although a study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air predicted a possible crisis again between July and August, the power shortage has been reduced. July 28, 2022 was an exception; it stood at 10.26 MU. The energy shortage ever since, has been limited to well below 10 million units, because of coal imports.

However, recent coal imports have caused electricity prices to increase by 60 to 70 paise per unit, according to the Minister of Power R.K. Singh. While many areas continue to suffer power cuts, electricity prices are likely to increase further. Coal meets  about 55% of India’s energy needs, according to the Ministry of Coal.

In its efforts to decarbonize, India has set ambitious renewable energy (RE) targets. From an RE goal of 175 GW by 2022 announced in Paris in 2015, India set a new target of 450 GW by 2030 at the United Nations climate conference COP26, conducted last year in Scotland.

However, the implementation of large wind energy projects has slowed down since 2017, because of several policy changes. And rooftop solar is yet to get its pace.

The untapped potential in renewables

Given the bottlenecks in the implementation of large RE projects, geopolitical uncertainties, and India’s reliance on imported coal, the present situation points towards the untapped RE potential, especially the small wind turbines and small wind-solar hybrids, according to energy experts.

A turbine with a rotor swept area smaller than 200 m2 that generates 1,000 AC (alternating current) or 1,500 DC (direct current) power is a small turbine, as per the International Electrotechnical Commission.

“For practical purposes, in the Indian context, we can say turbines up to 10 kW capacity, are small, though some countries consider up to 300 kW for the same,” says Uday Kshirsagar of Pune-based Spitzen Energy, a company which specializes in small wind (SW) and small wind-solar (SWS) hybrid systems.

SW turbines can run at wind speeds as low as two meters per second. They can be connected to the grid or be stand-alone systems and can also be hybridized with solar. They can be mounted on rooftops as well. Some of them are portable too.

rooftop solar and wind
Small wind turbines can be hybridized with solar panels and are portable / Credit: Spitzen Energy.

Given the potential, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) launched a ‘Small Wind Energy and Hybrid Systems’ program in September 2010. It included the empanelment of SW turbine manufacturers, wherein the National Institute of Wind Energy (NIWE) tested and validated the turbines.

The certification was prompted by the high number of turbines that were being imported during the time, when repairs and replacement of parts were a challenge, according to MP Ramesh, former director of NIWE.

“The scheme was initiated to promote small wind and wind-solar, and hence was subsidized,” explained Kshirsagar. The scheme came to a close in March 2017, as per MNRE’s 2018-19 annual report. “Because by 2017, when MNRE reviewed the scheme, it was felt the subsidy was high, as the price of photo-voltaic solar had dropped drastically by then,” says Kshirsagar.

The subsidy was set at Rs 1.5 lakh per kW for government and public institutions and Rs 1 lakh per kW for others. “The actual cost was Rs 2.5 to 3 lakh per kW,” says A.D. Thirumoorthy, a Coimbatore-based energy consultant.

However, SW and SWS systems continue to be installed without subsidy, primarily for corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. The applications are varied — from residential to commercial and public entities such as the railway and military, to remote off-grid villages or areas with erratic supply. “We’ve installed SW turbines for farmers, railway stations, level crossings, and tribal schools,” says Kshirsagar.

One of Spitzen’s impactful projects is the 100 kW SWS system installed to operate the gates of a dam in Maharashtra. “Diesel was being used in Madhya Vaitarna Dam. With the SWS system, there’s a drastic reduction in diesel consumption,” recalls Kshirsagar.

Besides small systems, Jaipur-based IYSERT Energy, also installs off-grid systems for the army’s remote posts, and a new SW system on highways, to harness the velocity of moving vehicles. “For the National Highway Authority, we install these turbines in the medians. When vehicles pass, electricity is generated and is used for lighting streetlamps,” says Rakesh Biswas, the founder of IYSERT.

If feasible, setting up a hybrid system works well, as both renewable sources can complement each other. Some of IYSERT’s turbines that spin on a vertical axis, are hybridized with solar panels.

Challenges in installing hybrid systems

“The sound and vibration were the deterrents, besides the cost,” points out Thirumoorthy, when asked why rooftop SW turbines did not take off.

Biswas says that more modern systems such as that which IYSERT designs and manufactures indigenously, have overcome these problems. But presently, with no subsidies, the cost factor weighs in favor of solar. “A 1 kW solar rooftop system costs only Rs 40,000, whereas a 1 kW solar-wind hybrid will cost Rs 2.5 lakh,” says Biswas.

solar powered streetlights
Small wind turbines can be used on highways, to convert the velocity of passing vehicles to generate energy, which in turn can power streetlights / Credit: Spitzen Energy.

The cost of a small wind turbine starts at Rs 70,000 per kW and may go up to Rs 2.5 lakh per kW for a hybrid, depending on factors, like the material, technology, locality and whether it is connected to the grid. “It would be good to have a subsidy as we have for rooftop solar,” opines Kshirsagar.

Despite training users, there are practical difficulties in maintenance, especially as most SW turbines are off-grid. “Maintenance is important, which people ignore. And when people get it on subsidy, it becomes nobody’s baby,” says Ramesh.

Spitzen overcomes this by partnering with a local NGO, for CSR projects. Given their rapport with the community, the NGO is able to ensure that the community members maintain the system.

Certification of turbines is a lengthy and costly process, as the turbines are certified after testing through different seasons of the year. As there were no clear recommendations for SW turbines by IEC or any other entity, NIWE ran its own tests, and charged only about one-twentieth of the actual testing cost, reveals Ramesh. He points out that SW system manufacturers are small players and lack financial resources. “So, to attract new manufacturers, we need supportive policy,” suggests Kshirsagar.

MNRE’s 2018-19 annual report shows only 3.35 MW of SW and hybrid systems installed across India. Though there is no data on market potential in India, market research firm Mordor Intelligence’s report estimates the global SW turbine market at  $309 million by 2027. To utilize this untapped potential, members of the Indian Small Wind Association met MNRE officials in August 2021. They sought support for subsidies and technical aid to connect SW plants to the grid, where possible. A grid-connected system will be more affordable as a storage battery will not be necessary.

rooftop solar and wind
Between 2010 and 2017, the government supported SW and SWS systems with subsidies / Credit: Spitzen Energy.

report by Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation and Idam Infrastructure Advisory Private Limited, suggests a target of 100 MW of SW, by 2032, and recommends microfinancing to fund SW projects in rural areas to achieve this.

People like Senthil Kumar who wish to install their own turbines to ensure an uninterrupted power supply can contribute to this goal. “The system I saw worked smoothly. I will install a similar turbine, and a battery which will ensure an uninterrupted power supply for my parents,” he says.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published by Mongabay India on 6 September 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Small wind-solar hybrids have the potential to meet the energy needs through grid-connected as well as off-grid systems / Credit: Munro89 via Wikimedia Commons.

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