It is likely that personal wind farms, rooftop solar panels, and the like will not save the planet, but we have a hunch that they might be one of the many little things that we can do to achieve one big thing---reduce the environmental effects of generating electricity. The Nickels administration seems to understand this, so its proposals (PDF) for revising the multifamily-housing zoning code would allow for small wind turbines and solar panels lower than 10 feet in height to be installed on the top of multifamily housing without violating the zoning code. We like this innovation. Make renewable energy lawful, as opposed to illegal.
But in the Business section of this morning's New York Times we see an article questioning the economic efficiency and the environmental benefits of the kind of small wind turbines that would be installed on multifamily housing buildings in Seattle.
Apparently, rooftop wind turbines are so small that they're not very good at generating electricity. And this basic design handicap is worsened by urban environment itself, with its many trees and varying building heights blocking the gusts of wind that might otherwise power the lil' turbines. What's worse, the turbines are so heavy that the greenhouse gases emitted when manufacturing and delivering the turbines might render meaningless the environmental benefits of micro wind power.
Don't worry, the experts quoted in the article point out that solar panels might be efficient enough---economically and environmentally. We're holding out hope for personal wind farms too. Hopefully economies of scale will drive the prices down as the market for small wind turbines grow. And the more small turbines that people install in an urban environment, the more innovative we will become at positioning them in a way that maximizes the wind blowing through their blades.