Wind Power Advocate Interview: Heather Rhoads-Weaver, eFormative Options

June 8, 2006

A photo of Heather Rhoads-Weaver

Heather Rhoads-Weaver, eFormative Options, was awarded the Wind Powering America 2006 Small Wind Advocate of the Year Award.

Location: Vashon, WA

Heather Rhoads-Weaver, eFormative Options, was awarded Wind Powering America's 2006 Small Wind Advocate of the Year Award.

Q. How did you become a small wind advocate?

A. I've always felt drawn to work toward positive change for society and the environment. In college, I became interested in renewable energy and how it can be integrated into affordable housing. Throughout my graduate program, I continued to study how many aspects of our energy use affect natural resources. I helped plan events and outreach efforts and served as a board member of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association (I-RENEW), where I learned how important yet controversial net metering policies are for on-site generation and school-based wind energy installations. I then became a contractor for the Union of Concerned Scientists to launch the Iowa Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (SEED) Coalition, and I worked as a lobbyist opposing the repeal of one of the nation's first state renewable energy mandates.

While working for the National Wind Coordinating Committee (NWCC), I helped coordinate a study on distributed generation and then assisted with the review and reporting of several utility-owned wind projects as a program manager at Global Energy Concepts (GEC). I then founded Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (NW SEED) and was hired by Tom Starrs as a subcontractor to develop small wind state Web pages for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). That work evolved into my role as AWEA's first Small Wind Advocate, and I was tasked with building cohesion among small wind industry members.

Q. Do you see links between small wind and solar energy?

A. I see small wind and solar as natural allies with the potential to build on each other's experiences. The two sectors also share similar infrastructures, as many dealers sell and install both technologies and their customers are looking for on-site power generation. Small wind and solar are complementary in terms of both resources being well suited to hybrid systems; the sun is stronger during some months of the year (or even different times of the day) and wind is stronger during other times. Both are also very modular, able to be plugged into the grid at the point where power is needed, and both are good at attracting public visibility for clean energy. Small-scale projects dispersed throughout communities, especially at schools or community centers, can truly pave the way for larger-scale renewable projects, while also providing important local benefits through jobs and economic development.

Q. What are the biggest challenges facing the small wind industry today?

A. One of the biggest challenges today is the lack of a federal tax incentive tailored for small wind turbines. With the recent change in Congress, I have renewed hope for improved policies to support widespread adoption of small wind systems.

Another major challenge is that consumers do not have a clear way to confirm the expected performance of various turbine designs. That's being addressed as we speak by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) and a working group of manufactures, state energy office representatives, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), AWEA, and the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) and other stakeholders launching the Small Wind Certification Corporation. This exciting new labeling program will certify that small turbines meet accepted standards and provide consumers with noise and power production ratings.

Q. What are the major market opportunities for small wind?

A. The newest buzz seems to be the growing interest in using small wind in suburban large lot developments. Our research shows that the grid-connected segment of the small wind market is poised to grow from 5% of installed small wind capacity today to at least 20% in the next 15 years. While off-grid systems still comprise the bulk of sales, the on-grid market sector is booming.

One neat emerging market is plug-in hybrid vehicles. People want control over their energy sources, and transportation fuel is such a major variable. Once it becomes easy to produce your own electric "fuel" from wind blowing across your property, that will be a big driver for the small wind industry!

Q. What strategies can help the small wind market grow?

A. Recently improved wind map data and user-friendly GIS tools, like Google Earth, can help dealers and retailers target their potential customer base. With the ability to overlay property lot lines with wind data and distribution lines, dealers can target specific on-grid and off-grid development areas. Mainstream marketing efforts, such as having booths at home improvement shows, targeting education of builders and contractors, working through EPA Energy Star networks, and utilizing direct mail campaigns, can provide great opportunities to reach beyond the do-it-yourselfers to the larger general public.

Q. What is the potential for small wind to address some of today's biggest issues, such as domestic security and climate change?

A. Distributed wind can have a major impact on both issues. By being widely dispersed, the power generated is supplied at the point of end use, allowing local self-sufficiency. By seeing how their power is generated, system owners and neighbors often become more conscious of how they use it. Distributed generation also makes it harder for external factors to affect energy supplies. Renewable energy can foster optimism that we can prevent disastrous effects on our global environment if we change preconceived ideas of how energy must be produced.

Q. What advice would you give students interested in small wind careers?

A. Most important: Be proactive! The best opportunities are not going to come to you, you'll have to pursue them. You can build a job for yourself in the small wind sector if you apply yourself and act strategically: find a mentor, get a job at a company selling small wind turbines, volunteer with a clean energy advocacy organization, participate in local renewable energy association meetings, attend conferences and meetings of the ASES Small Wind Division and the AWEA small wind committee and working groups, gain technical knowledge by taking training, or intern with an installer. There is no one prescribed or perfect way to build a career in small wind, but there are plenty of great opportunities out there if you are creative!

Q. What changes have you observed in the wind industry over the past decade?

A. The wind industry has seen tremendous growth, but also consolidation. Smaller companies have been bought up by larger companies, as with the example of FPL purchasing Wind Logics, and multinationals (large oil companies in particular) have started to make significant investments in the industry. Small wind was a bigger portion of the industry in the early 1990s. Today it is mostly overshadowed by megawatt-scale wind. However, I think that before long on-site wind will emerge as an integral and substantial segment of the overall industry as global energy supplies move toward distributed generation and smart grids. Just as the computer industry evolved from mainframes and centralized servers to micro applications and the World Wide Web, I expect that dispersed wind generation will soon see exponential growth.

Q. What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work as a small wind advocate?

A. It has been extremely rewarding to watch the industry grow. I value the strong personal relationships that I have made with all kinds of stakeholders, and it has been wonderful to see so many folks flourish with the new businesses and nonprofits that they have launched. Many industry veterans have helped me throughout my career, and it's a pleasure to see so many new faces, especially students, now making this sector their home. It is also very rewarding when a client or funder puts their trust in my company for a project and feels confident in our management and capabilities.

Q. What are your goals and plans for the future? What are you looking forward to working on next?

A. I am excited to see the small wind certification and labeling program take off. I think it will really help the small wind industry mature and reach more consumers. I plan to keep working on a mix of nonprofit and private sector projects, focusing on advancing community-scale renewables. I am looking forward to helping write grants and proposals to get new projects off the ground and to build capacity within the public, non-profit, and small business sectors. I am also interested in working on building understanding of how cooperatives and other new business models can provide creative solutions and economic development through increased use of renewable energy.

What I enjoy most about my job is that I am able to help advance good ideas and promising opportunities. It allows me to stay focused on making positive change and keeps my work interesting!