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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 February 2006, 14:28 GMT
Sail of the century
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Urban turbines
With energy prices on the up, will city skylines bristle with wind turbines and will back gardens become mini wind farms?

"In five years, the skylines of cities across the country are going to change. Micro wind turbines are going to be as common a sight as satellite dishes."

So says Paul Monaghan, head of sustainability for the Co-operative group, which is creating the UK's biggest urban wind farm on the roof of one of its office blocks in Manchester.

The public image of wind power has become columns of giant turbines spinning over remote landscapes.

But wind turbines are now arriving on the tops of inner-city tower blocks as well as hillsides.

Roof top turbines
The Co-op's building in Manchester
The Co-operative Insurance Services building has 19 turbines, standing three metres tall, with each expected to save about a tonne of carbon dioxide a year.

When the turbines are turned on later this month, Mr Monaghan expects the energy generated to pay back the installation costs in five years - and unlike "grandiose" environmental schemes, he says this has been relatively quick and cheap.

If there can be mobile phone masts and communication dishes stuck on top of big commercial properties, then why not wind farms - he forecasts that soaring energy prices are going to create a roofscape of miniature turbines.

Urban landscape

At first he expects the turbines to provide about 4% of the electricity used by the Co-op's 15-storey building. But when combined with other renewable energy, such as solar power, he predicts savings will reach 30%.

Wind farm by a sheep farm in Scotland
Where sheep may safely graze
It's not just office blocks. Even smaller turbines, about the size of a satellite dish, are becoming available for rooftops, house gables and back gardens.

This latest wave of renewable energy isn't about industrial-scale power, it's about a grass-roots approach, with individual homes supplementing their mains supply - an approach known as "micro generation".

Next month, the Department for Trade and Industry is set to publish a report on its micro generation strategy.

This isn't just about a few green activists. An Energy Savings Trust study for the department found that micro generation, with sufficient support, could provide 30% to 40% of the UK's electricity by the middle of the century.

Such domestic energy schemes could include wind and solar power, along with combined heat and power boilers, which generate electricity as well as providing hot water.

Rising bills

The government is being pushed to encourage such a far-reaching expansion of back-garden power by one of its own backbenchers, Mark Lazarowicz.

Turbine on house
Home turbines are getting quieter - and can't be heard inside
The Labour MP for Edinburgh North has put forward a Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill, which includes proposals to make it easier and more cost-efficient for people to generate their own energy, which would reduce electricity bills and toxic emissions.

"This isn't only about a hobby - this is something that could be taken up by hundreds of thousands of households."

The bill, now in the committee stage, has so far gained widespread support across party lines, and Mr Lazarowicz is optimistic about its chances of becoming law.

Dave Sowden, chief executive of the Micropower Council, says that micro generation schemes are going to switch from a niche market into the mainstream.

A rooftop turbine currently costs about 1,500 - an up-front cost that's too steep for many people, and not offering much of a short-term prospect of recouping savings on energy bills.

Power to the backyard

But savings from mass manufacture and regulatory changes for electricity suppliers are going to see the costs tumble for such power generation schemes, says Mr Sowden.

Wind turbines on a roof
The skyline of the future?
Such domestic micro generation will provide about a third of household electricity needs, he says, and are simple to combine with the mains supply.

And once people start to see power from their own turbine providing them with electricity, it is going to start appealing to a mass audience, in a way that many energy savings schemes have struggled.

"When people are round your house for a dinner party, it's not very exciting to show them your cavity wall insulation. But if you can show that the boiler is being powered by your own turbine, now that's something to talk about."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I enquired about a roof-mounted wind turbine for my home last November and was quoted 6,000 for the turbine and 2,000 for fitting. If I could get one for about 2,000-3,000 I would have it fitted tomorrow. I'm keen to do my part, but prices are simply too high. With the need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide the country produces it's about time the government intervene and massively subsidise home wind turbines, solar panels and energy saving light bulbs etc.
Steve Rudland, Newcastle

My parents, in their 60s, are fascinated and highly enthusiastic about the idea of setting up their own micro-generation system - a rooftop turbine, perhaps a couple of solar panels. But having tried repeatedly to find out on their behalf where on earth to actually get such things I'm utterly befuddled by the lack of clear information anywhere. Or the various conflicting information on different sites. It's a great idea, we want to do it and we're getting nowhere. Like so many current ideas that could help us out of our black hole energy crisis the information just isn't there for the average person.
Helen, Suffolk, UK

We have one (a very small one) near us: it sounds like a jet taking off in a high wind. I just don't believe these people who tout home turbines; I also believe that vibrations caused by such turbines will be a real nuisance inside the house, and 100 times more so if the turbine is on your joined-on neighbour's house and not your own. We have a National Grid: for all reasons of ecology, conservation, economy and above all commonsense, it should be powered by large central generating stations (shame we destroyed our own coal industry in the 80s, ain't it?)
John Law, Hexham, Northumberland

The bill is a wonderful idea. If micro-generation can provide 30-40% of our electricity isn't it better to concentrate on this, rather than spending billions of pounds on new nuclear power stations (currently providing around 20% of our electricity).
Tom Skinner, London

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