June 24, 2009

Interview with Ron Stimmel: AWEA small wind advocate

Ron Stimmel joined AWEA as the Small-Wind Advocate in August 2006 where he advocates for policies and legislation that support the industry for small turbines used by individual homes, farms, and businesses. Ron is the author of AWEA’s annual small-wind market report in which he surveys industry manufacturers. Ron authored the guidebook, “Winds of Change”…

Ron Stimmel joined AWEA as the Small-Wind Advocate in August 2006 where he advocates for policies and legislation that support the industry for small turbines used by individual homes, farms, and businesses. Ron is the author of AWEA’s annual small-wind market report in which he surveys industry manufacturers. Ron authored the guidebook, “Winds of Change” at the Amerian Public Power Association. He’s an enormously busy guy, but spent some time with IREC to talk about AWEA’s work with the small wind industry.

IREC: Ron, you’ve been AWEA’s small-wind advocate since August ’06. So in the past nearly four years, what small wind areas has AWEA focused on?

RS: The three main priorities of our small wind efforts are legislative advocacy, communications and outreach, and, increasingly, building member benefits for our small wind constituency. This includes launching an annual conference and exhibition specifically for the small and community wind industries, and working to involve equipment retailers in our membership.

IREC: Let’s talk a little bit about AWEA’s small wind manufacturer survey. Is that an annual thing? What do you learn from it?

RS: The Department of Energy contracts AWEA to write an annual small-wind market report, which I create based on a survey of industry manufacturers. The first report was written in 2005 by my predecessor, Heather Rhoads-Weaver, and I have tried to build upon her good work. The annual study has turned out to be the cornerstone of not just our communications efforts, but our lobbying as well. Understanding the market, its trends, its policy needs – and most importantly our members – is key to making serious plans for growth.

In the report, I try to predict questions that reporters, potential investors, and new market entrants might have, such as an understanding of historic and present sales, macroeconomic factors, global competition, and any lessons that can be learned from the solar photovoltaic industry. The bottom line is that the more information we have about our members, the better we can advocate for them. The reports are released in the late spring just before our WINDPOWER conference. Click here for the most recent report.

IREC: That’s a great photo on the cover of the report. And some enviable statistics: predictions of some 1,700 MW installed in the U.S in just four years (where is it now?) Has the timeline and/or number of MW been re-evaluated given the current global economic crisis?

RS: With the advent of a 30% federal investment (up-front) tax credit late last year, I think we will see markets emerge in states that have historically seen lean sales due to a lack of local incentives. After chugging along at a respectable 14-25% annual growth for several years, US sales leapt 78% last year and manufacturers predict a 30-fold increase within as little as five years.

IREC: No doubt there are lots of industries that would love to have those numbers. It’s probably safe to say that practices like net metering, interconnection, incentives also helped move the industry along more quickly. Which sector-residential or commercial-has seen the largest growth?

RS: Yes– a combination of state- and federal-level policy support and incentives, private investment have enabled turbine supply to meet demand, and an increasing public awareness of the technology. The sharpest increases were within the residential and upper-commercial market segments that have gotten the most mileage out of state incentive programs. Recent years have seen a shift away from micro turbines used for battery charging and toward slightly larger, grid-tied systems that can supply a greater portion of a site’s electricity needs. Part of the reason is that state incentive programs have made these larger turbines more affordable, and the public has become more interested.

IREC: There has been lots of consumer demand for small wind technology-especially now that it’s eligible for AARA funding (30% federal investment up-front tax credit). That will help address some of the financial hurdles, but what about those other stumbling blocks like permitting and zoning ordinances which have affected both wind and solar installations.

RS: Most challenges to growth are not technological, but rather political, regulatory, and informational, often with a lot of overlap. Up-front cost has been the top challenge in the past, but progress is being made with the help of investment in manufacturing that will help to increase production volumes and lower costs. Permitting challenges still thwart fully 1/3 of all planned small wind installations, particularly in the residential market, and the reason often is simply a zoning board’s – or vocal neighbor’s – lack of information about the technology and its real impacts on the community.

Last year, with the help of our members, AWEA published a new permitting guide aimed specifically at state and local policymakers to help debunk myths about small wind and provide reasoned arguments for the model zoning ordinance we recommend. Hopefully this will help to open markets locally. (Link to the AWEA permitting guide.)

Generally, the more accurate information the public has about small wind, the more likely it is to be accepted, and even embraced. This will be helped immensely, in my opinion, by a forthcoming program to certify small wind turbines to a performance and safety standard.

IREC: It seems like SWCC will really mature the industry.

RS: Certifying small wind turbines to a performance and safety standard through the Small Wind Certification Council (SWCC) will be a real game-changer in the industry. It will establish a level of transparency in the industry that consumers and regulators have never before had and will provide a great foundation for the industry’s predicted growth. Certification will provide confidence to investors, market entrants, utilities, zoning boards, consumers, and to states that want to direct incentive funding only to tested equipment.

IREC: I saw in the survey that about 220 companies manufacture or plan to manufacture small wind turbines, and of those 220, a third are based in the U.S. Since the U.S. currently leads, how will that play out with SWCC? Will it certify all turbines, or just those that are manufactured in the U.S?

RS: For turbines that are sold in North America, SWCC will certify them regardless of where they’re manufactured.

IREC: What do you think about rooftop turbines? I assume their numbers are minimal, but is this sector of the technology gaining ground? There seems to be a lot of interest in the technology.

RS: Media and consumers seem fascinated with the idea of installing turbines onto buildings or rooftops, but there seem to be tremendous challenges for this type of application to be sustainable in the marketplace. The largest challenge seems to be simply the turbulent and unpredictable way wind behaves around objects like rooftops, and how that affects a turbine’s energy production. Without an adequate wind resource, any turbine will struggle. The industry has begun to recognize that the most important measurement of a technology is how cost-effectively it can produce kilowatt-hours over its lifespan. So far, the marketplace has shown that the way to do that has been by installing turbines in the most consistent, robust resources, which have been on towers high above surrounding obstacles.

IREC: I suppose it depends on how quickly that techology develops. What’s surprised you the most about the small wind industry?

RS: What has surprised me the most is how much community plays a part in the industry’s dynamics. Small wind has been largely unregulated for decades and that seems to have created a strong culture of collaboration, peer review, and grassroots advocacy. I also doubt there are many other industries as enthusiastic about their potential as small wind is.

If you want to know more about AWEA’s small wind activities, contact Ron at 202.383.2546, or by email.