Small Wind Conference

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Small Wind Conference

A Gathering of Installers, Manufacturers, Dealers and Distributors

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"What a long strange trip it's been!"--Roy Butler

"Everyone was so friendly and welcoming! Loved it all!" --Anagha Ray

"Genuine people, great spirit of camaraderie and sharing of helpful inside-industry information. Great opportunity to meet key people and make critical connections." --Dr. Greg Sanders

"The team turbine building [contest] was the best!!" --Anon

"It's one of a kind and very valuable to the industry." --Britton Rife

"The camaraderie [was the best] for sure. Lots of people I've already met, but new folks with such interesting stories and backgrounds." --Sarah Bakke


It’s been a great run but it’s time to furl!

The 14th and final Small Wind Conference was held on April 9-10, 2018

It’s Been Quite a Trip!

By Mick Sagrillo

After 14 years of wildly successful conferences and exhibitions, the members of the Small Wind Conference (SWC), LLC are officially hanging up their climbing harnesses and hardhats. Sniff!

The Backstory

For probably a decade before the first SWC, small wind installers, site assessors, trainers, and equipment suppliers would meet over breakfast at the annual Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Energy Fair in Custer, WI, and complain that there was no national event dedicated specifically to small wind issues. Oh, sure, there was THE national/international wind extravaganza hosted in the likes of downtown Washington, DC, or Houston, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. A sum of $3,000+ for 3-day event like that, however, represented a month’s gross income for the small companies and individuals that we were.

So year after year, whine after whine…. I get really tired of hearing people complain about things, especially when there might actually be something we can do about the situation. At the time in 2004, I was serving as the wind technology lead for Focus on Energy (FoE), Wisconsin’s Renewable Energy Public Benefits Program. I excused myself from a gripe session and walked over to Don Wichert, my boss and long-time friend, and asked if I could add a task to my FoE contract. I would be responsible to him and FoE for pulling off a regional, and eventually national, small wind conference, similar to what the big wind people do only the focus would be on small wind, turbines with a nameplate capacity of 100 kilowatts (kW) or less. Don said, “Let me think about it.” After a pause, he followed up with “Send me a proposal.” I had him!

I didn’t mention anything to any of the small wind group, but the next week I sent Don a proposal to host a “Barriers to the Installation of Small Wind Systems” conference to occur a few days prior to the 2005 Energy Fair. I was given a budget for food and printing, and my time was covered by FoE. I solicited my good friend Trudy Forsyth at NREL to be my right hand woman, as she could do this under her contract. It was time to announce to the small wind installers’ community that they had their conference, and they needed to submit presentation proposals for consideration.

The first year we had 42 attendees, mostly installers from the Midwest but with a smattering from the Southwest and West coast and a few manufacturers. We ended up with two days of presentations with plenty of time for discussion. Much of it was an eye-opener for someone like Trudy, as the issues raised by installers were not the issues raised by NREL’s usual audiences: manufacturers and laboratories.

The second year saw organizational help from Roy Butler of Four Winds Renewable Energy in NY and Ian Woofenden of Home Power magazine. It also saw a doubling of attendees. By the third year we saw some real changes. Attendance doubled again, forcing us to move to a larger (hotel) venue. We dropped “Barriers” from our name as being too negative. We began soliciting and getting paid conference sponsorships, mostly manufacturers and supply chain folks, which offset FoE funding. At four years, we were at the start of a self-sufficient conference.

We Were on a Roll!

The next eight or so years saw a myriad of changes:

Brent Summerville of Appalachian State University and Jenny Heinzen of Lakeshore Technical College and then with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association joined our ranks, bringing us to six conference organizers.FoE dropped its major funding. We organized as an LLC and had to either swim or sink on our own efforts.The SWC began to take on a clear identity of its own, with attendees thinking “ownership” relative to what was included on each conference program, even though the SWC was organized by the LLC. “Owners,” meaning installers, site assessors, educators, labs, manufacturers, and supply chain folks, began actively working together on all manner of national issues affecting the SW industry. “We” became a national force of sorts.Collectively, we were the undercurrent of dissension in the small wind industry that eventually lead to the formation of the Distributed Wind Energy Association.We were the wider element beyond manufacturers and labs that supported Small Wind Certification, and many of us served on the Small Wind Certification Council.We were the prime mover behind Small Wind Installer Certification and Small Wind Site Assessor Certification, both of which were eventually dropped by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) as not being cost-effective to continue. (No sour grapes here—we get what it takes to successfully run a business.)We began attracting international attendees and presentations from internationals, thanks in large part to the efforts of Trudy Forsyth.At one point, we topped over 360 attendees representing all seven continents.Just like at the big wind conference, the annual SWC came with pre-conference workshops, workgroups, and committees that contributed to the efforts of, for example, NREL.

And then….!

And then the next couple of years saw a retrenching of the SW industry. The prime reason for this was the plummeting cost of photovoltaic equipment, nothing we could do anything about.

A second reason was the plummeting installed PV system costs thanks to a DOE/NREL effort to streamline PV installation costs, euphemistically termed “soft costs.” For a PV installation, “soft costs” included not only the costs associated with the actual on-site installation labor (excavation, foundation, racking and mounts, module assembly, electronics assembly, wire harnesses, wire runs, component mounting, and commissioning), but also the pre-assembly of various components at some far-away factory to be shipped to a customer site, ready for installation. By identifying what could be factory- assembled as opposed to site-assembled, the PV industry was able to cut back on what amounted to over half of their system cost. It turned out that the cost for factory assembly and shipping of cookie-cutter systems was a bargain compared to the on-site assembly of site-specific designs.

It’s not easy to accomplish this with SW for any number of reasons. Oh, sure, you can do this with micro-wind, under 1 kW and up to perhaps a couple of kW on short towers, but my decade with FoE revealed that renewable energy customers wanted 10 kW and up, to 100 kW and beyond. Engineering of the site, foundation, tower, and various other components began to get in the way of cost trimming with such projects. It’s just not as cost-effective with this scale of wind as it is with modular PV.

A third reason was, is, let’s face it: small wind turbines live on towers. Tall towers. An entry level tower in the agricultural areas of Wisconsin where I live is 80 feet, and they go up from there: 100, 120, 140, and even a few at 160 feet. You just can’t install a wind system on the ground or on a roof like you can a PV system (although plenty of people have unsuccessfully tried).

So, our attendance began to dwindle. It was serious soul-searching decision time. In an effort to stave off total abandonment, we moved our venue to Minneapolis in 2017, which has an international airport compared to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, which doesn’t even have an agricultural spray plane hanger. That worked for a year. Last year saw yet another reduction in attendance. Back to soul-searching!

As the Worm Turns

I had been hinting about wanting to retire and just register and attend the SWC for several years. No dice from the others! By now there were only 5 of us organizing the SWC and I had always acted as den mother and chief nag. The other four were not about to let me go…unless I could find some replacements. I hounded my compatriots and attendees at the registration tables for several years, but no one wanted to take on the responsibility, both time and financial (as an LLC we were out-of-pocket if the SWC lost money). They were having too much fun attending and presenting and sponsoring to have to give up five months of their lives to plan and execute the SWC.

After the 2018 SWC, our 14th, Trudy announced that she was retiring. Roy, having taken on the bulk of his wife’s health care and having missed the 2018 SWC, broke it to us that he was going to have to retire as well. Finally my pleas to retire resonated. It looked like there would be only two left to carry on in 2019.

That opened the door for one final reality check.

The bottom lines were:

The SW industry, at least in terms of our sponsors and exhibitors (the ones who offset most of the cost of any conference), up to 100 kW in capacity and represented by manufacturers, site assessors, installers, educators, supply chain folks, …..has continued to wane as PV waxes and PV installed costs continue to drop.Our faithful attendees are falling by the wayside. Most SW installers have transitioned to PV.We simply could not find new blood to take over for three of the five veterans on the SWC Coordinating Committee.

The reality was we simply could not continue to commit to an annual conference financially with falling attendance in what appeared to be a faltering SW industry. It was time to pull the plug and cancel the 2019 SWC (sniff, sniff) and dissolve the SWC, LLC.

Why Were We Successful?

We were obviously filling a void. Prior to the SWCs, all conference attention was on big wind but also included some kind of unworkable rooftop gizmo inventions. While SW manufacturers garnered some time, no podium time was given at these conferences to site assessors, installers, trainers, supply chains, O&M, end users, permitting officials, or the host of other hands that are involved in a SW project. The SWCs gave them all equal time, which you couldn’t buy with your SWC sponsorship dollars.

Our podium time became a valuable commodity to a variety of interests: lab and university researchers, people who needed to publish; the education and training community; manufacturers, installers, site assessors, and supply chain folks who had new developments or techniques to unveil. We were filling a niche that could not be filled anywhere else in the wind industry in the U.S.

Other regular attendees included internationals trying to understand the ins and outs of the US and international markets and the players. We also drew graduate and engineering students seeking networking opportunities for potential jobs. On the other end, national labs, manufacturers, industry folks, installers, and educational institutions all looking for fresh blood of various flavors appreciated the newcomers.

Nothing was sacred. Mike Bergey of Bergey Windpower often referred to the SWC as the “Militant Installers Conference.” But he never missed a conference, and he always did a presentation or two, including pre-conference workshops when we offered them. He was also one of our most faithful sponsors (thanks, Mike!) What I mean by “nothing is sacred” is that if you said something during a presentation or in the exhibit hall that was an exaggeration or erroneous, you were called to task on it. Politely, of course – we were respectful to each other (ground rule #1).

And we had fun! All meals and the socials were held in the exhibit hall so unless you were a recluse, you had to fraternize. Socials involved some sort of group problem solving competition after food and drink. The competition was in some way small wind-related: craft a set of blades and test their output against others; fabricate a tower out of straws and marshmallows and test it against others in various fan speeds; create a model and commercial touting your latest technology breakthrough rooftop wind gizmo.

We always recognized people for their contributions and successes. Every industry has its rock stars, its stand-outs. And yes, we recognized them. But we also gave equal kudos to unsuspecting “little people” (for lack of a better phrase): installers, educators, site assessors, advocates, and volunteers. The award was a plaque recognizing their contribution to small wind. But THE AWARD was a hard hat (blue or pink, depending on the gender of the recipient—remember, have fun) and the all impressive 24” adjustable crescent wrench (which many found out that you cannot carry onto an airplane).

We had a faithful following of attendees and especially sponsors, many of whom brought along an entourage or other followers. While I can’t name them all, some of our most faithful sponsors were:

NREL and all the NRELians that attended and presented and advocated for us over the years.Mike Bergey, Bergey Windpower—one of the last SW manufacturers left in the U.S.Lise Trudeau and the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Division of Energy ResourcesJim Jarvis, APRS WorldIan Woofenden, Home Power MagazineBuffalo Renewables and Niagara Wind and SolarICC-Small Wind Certification CouncilRob Wills, IntergridAmbor StructuresIntertekAWS Truepower

I don’t consider this to be the death of SW or the SWC, only a temporary hiatus. Small wind has had its ups and downs in this country over the past nearly 90 years (can you believe that!), and this is just one more hiccup in that timeline. If, by any odd chance, anyone out there has a burning desire to get involved and help resurrect the SWC, as an event and as a business and legal entity, please get in touch.

Thanks to all those who contributed time, experiences, information or dollars to help make the Small Wind Conference the moving force that it was for 14 years. What a ride!

Roy Butler, Trudy Forsyth, Jenny Heinzen, Mick Sagrillo and Brent Summerville


Thanks to Everyone!

To all our Sponsors, Exhibitors and loyal attendees.It has been our pleasure to have you as part of our Small Wind family over these past 14 years!

Sessions Sponsor

Conference Sponsors

Refreshment Sponsors

Silent Auction Sponsor

Media Sponsor

Conference Partners

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