Small wind not so small

Flagstaff, AZ – Not too long ago homeowners wanting to save money and shrink their carbon footprint installed solar panels. Now small wind turbines are sprouting up all over the country. More and more people are buying wind turbines as federal and state tax credits make them more economical. And northern Arizona has become a center for the small wind industry. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has the latest installment of KNAU's week-long series "Going Green."

SFX: wind chime

A wind chime is music to John Miller's ears. It means the investment in his front yard wind turbine is paying off.

MILLER: During the really windy months I had one APS bill which I should've paid around 80 dollars it was 15. I had another one again around 80 dollars and I paid 34.

Not all months show that dramatic a savings. Not all months are windy. But thanks to recent tax credits and some help from APS the turbine in front of his home east of Flagstaff will pay for itself in a few years. Miller says it cost about 35-hundred dollars after the tax credits kicked in. He got a deal from his installer because the model is so new. And it took a couple months to work out the kinks.

But once installed it was the talk of the neighborhood. Initially his neighbors were worried about the 30-foot-tall wind turbine's potential noise and their view of the San Francisco Peaks, but now they're looking into getting their own.

MILLER: You'd see people drive they'd stop and just look. We probably get three to four inquiries a week I'm absolutely amazed we were initially the second in the area if you look around there's one, two, three. And I know five more going up in the area within the next 30-60 days. Miller has saved money and likes that he's doing something good for the environment. On top of that he bought local.

SFX: cross fade to manufacturing warehouse sounds drill, fan

Southwest Windpower's Andy Kruse gives a tour of the Flagstaff facility. He would like small wind turbines to be as prevalent as mailboxes.

KRUSE: This here is the Skystream production line. We can manufacture about 400 Skystreams a month off of this particular line.

Southwest's latest model - what Miller has installed - has made small wind worthwhile for homeowners and it jumpstarted its domestic market.

Twenty years ago it was hard to imagine the multi million dollar company it is today. Kruse markets the wind turbines. His partner David Calley engineered their first products. The former WL Gore employees worked out of Calley's dad's garage.

KRUSE: In those early days nothing was easy. We didn't even have electricity. We had to produce our own electricity to even make the power to run the machines to build the wind turbines because it was off the grid. It was very difficult. It was basically just credit cards a little bit of family money and dreams.

They now employ more than 80 people and deliver their turbines to more than 88 countries. Southwest is the world's largest producer of small wind turbines. Kruse recalls one rewarding sale to a bar owner in the Dominican Republic.

KRUSE: It was just a grass hut and she would serve drinks to the locals til the sun went down and was able to invest in one of our small wind turbines. And all of a sudden she had lights her business quadrupled. She took one of our products and just completely transformed her life.

Southwest plans to expand with the help of some big investors like General Electric. They're even putting turbines on top of parking lot lights at a California Walmart. He helped lobby for the new 4-thousand dollar federal tax credit, which has sparked a jump in sales.

But there are still challenges. A few months ago the slow economy forced them to lay off 16 people in Flagstaff.

KRUSE: The economy hit everybody very hard a lot of companies went out of business. We've seen bankruptcies like we never have before. We saw a lot of those challenges as well. People started saying I need to wait. Of course that results in us having to lay some people off. We need to remain responsible to our shareholders as much as it pained us to do that.

Kruse says they've brought back four of those laid off.

And now there's talk of moving the plant some place more cost effective. The company just signed a two-year lease in Flagstaff but historically they've signed for five. If the demand for small wind turbines continues to grow, then Southwest Windpower may just out grow Flagstaff.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.