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Popular Science Interviews Matthew Lackner as Authority on Wind Energy

Matthew Lackner in foreground with aquatic wind turbine in background

Matthew Lackner

Popular Science recently interviewed Professor Matthew Lackner of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department as a prominent expert on wind energy to explain why we likely won’t ever see rooftop wind turbines in the same way that we have rooftop solar panels.

“Sadly,” as the Popular Science article observed, “it’s not likely we’re going to see rooftop wind power become a vibrant renewable energy source anytime soon.”

Lackner, the director of the UMass Wind Energy Center and the Wind Energy Fellows, said that our roofs may not be breezy enough to support rooftop turbines and “wind doesn’t scale down as well as solar.”

According to Lackner, “If you look at large-scale solar farms versus household solar, the cost per unit of energy produced will be lower for the large-scale solar farm just because of the economics of scale. But solar panels are so cheap now that it still sort of makes economic sense to do it on one home. For wind, there are a few problems. One is that with wind turbines there are a lot of spatial scaling factors that go into it.”

Lackner said that you can justify investing in large, industrial wind turbines because they produce a lot of power. But, if you were to put small wind turbines on your home, the investment simply wouldn’t be worth it because they likely won’t generate enough power to justify purchasing and installing the turbines.

As Lackner explained, with wind power you want to have wind turbines with very tall towers that are high up in the air to extract the strong wind speeds above trees, buildings, and other obstructions. Generally speaking, the wind gets more powerful the higher you go thanks to the lack of obstacles.

“When it comes to residential,” said Lackner, “most areas have limits of towers you can install on your house…so you can’t really get a turbine up very high. You’re also, in most residential areas, surrounded by other houses and trees and things like that that block the wind low down, so wind speeds tend to be very low right near a house.”

But Lackner also noted that there may be alternative opportunities for wind turbines through community efforts. He says he can imagine a community having its own moderate-sized wind turbine if it has the right space for it and wants to make the investment. These kinds of community owned wind farms can already be found in places such as Denmark and Scotland.

“I don’t think individual homes would make a whole bunch of sense to do,” said Lackner, “but I could see [a turbine of] something like 50-100 kilowatts that powers tens of homes in a development if it was in a place that’s pretty open towards the top of a hill as opposed to the bottom of a hill.” (June 2022)