Remembering Wind Pioneer Corwin Hardham: The Man And The Myth

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"Remembering Wind Pioneer Corwin Hardham: The Man And The Myth"

“The greatest gifts are often seen, in the course of nature, rained by celestial influences on human creatures; and sometimes, in supernatural fashion, beauty, grace and talent are united beyond measure in one single person.” — Georgio Vasari on Leonardo da Vinci

by Clara Vondrich

With all eyes trained on two startling collisions of hot air and cold fronts – Hurricane Sandy and our Presidential election — the clean tech community has had little chance to honor the passing of one of our leading lights, boy wonder Corwin Hardham, who died two weeks ago at the age of 38.

Corwin was the co-founder and CEO of Makani Power, a renewable energy startup with an improbable but tantalizing vision: Harvest the wind at higher altitudes where it is stronger and more consistent, side-stepping the intermittency issues which plague traditional wind farms.  So what does this mean practically: Throw more steel at the problem by building regular turbines taller and higher?  No.

Corwin’s idea, like his personality, was much more refined, rooted in finesse and physics rather than brute strength.  How about a self-flying kite on a retractable tether which can position itself optimally to capture maximum wind energy using 90% less material than a conventional wind turbine?  OK.  Now we’re talking!

The Makani prototype is a carbon fiber airplane wing, gorgeous and featherlight – fitted with four propeller/generator pairs mounted perpendicular to the wing.  Air moving across the propeller blades forces them to rotate, driving the generator to produce electricity.  The wing flies in vertical circles and sends the generated power back down the tether to the ground.  The flight system is fully autonomous — no pilot required — controlled by sophisticated computer programming that is beyond my capacity to explain.

Wait, reality check: Brilliant idea cooked up by a mad scientist hell bent on, er, saving the world, I’ve read this before … in comic books.  Did it have a leg to stand on?  Top scientists at the US Department of Energy certainly thought so.  Makani was an early award-recipient of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).  The “energy gamechanger” agency was set up early in the Obama Administration exclusively to support high-risk, high-reward technologies with the potential to transform our energy system.  Only early-stage designs are funded, with the goal to help them bypass the valley of death between design and deployment. By definition, ARPA-E doesn’t help existing energy tools like solar panels or traditional wind turbines down their learning curves – it’s aim is to create new learning curves entirely, supporting only the boldest brightest visions with the potential to flip the current energy paradigm on its head. Makani Power quickly became an ARPA-E poster child, featured with pride and prominence at the third annual summit in DC earlier this year.

Though he’d insist it was a team effort, Corwin was principally responsible for the design and engineering of the Makani system.  The technology is in its seventh iteration, having been buoyed my multi-million dollar grants from Google and ARPA-E.  The latest version has a generating capacity of 600 kilowatts, but Corwin wasn’t content to stop there: Makani is now working on a five-megawatt system for offshore use. This beauty – roughly the wingspan of a Boeing 747 – is the key to achieving Makani’s vision of utility-scale deployment in offshore wind farms.

The Makani wing in flight showing the 4 generators/propellers (Photo: Makani Power)

Makani is working to demolish some of the last remaining roadblocks to traditional wind power. On-shore wind has seen stunning increases in installed capacity in recent years and it’s virtually cost-competitive with fossil energy in many places. But some sticky problems remain, not the least of which is the lack of grid-scale energy storage that means electrons stop flowing when the wind stops blowing, low capacity factors, significant up-front costs, bulky infrastructure and associated NIMBYism.  Further, in the U.S., the wind and solar sectors are being squeezed by the shale gas boom driving electricity prices to unprecedented lows.

Dr. Jonathan Koomey explained why Makani could have a leg-up on traditional wind in a post reprinted in Climate Progress earlier this year:

Because the wing flies at higher altitudes than a typical wind turbine, and because it can operate at lower wind speeds, the capacity factor for a Makani turbine will be more like 50-60% (instead of 30-40% for new traditional wind turbines in good sites).  And with capital costs typically half of a traditional turbine, the Makani technology should have a significant economic advantage over traditional wind power plants (and competing fossil technologies).

With commercialization on the horizon, I understood from Corwin that he was in negotiations with the UK regarding offshore wind application of Makani’s system. The UK has very significant renewables targets over the next few decades, and technologies like Makani’s may be indispensable.  The design can access a brave new world of wind resource, including vast amounts offshore above deep water.   Makani’s design is also a counterpoint to the influential band of NIMBY-ers opposing major wind installations on the grounds that they’re an eyesore: It has a fraction of the footprint of stationary wind turbines, one-tenth to be exact, and it allows for deployment outside of visually or environmentally sensitive locations.

The man behind the vision was no less impressive. Try to conjure in your mind the image of this mechanical engineer and inventor who earned a PhD from Stanford and a Masters from MIT, holds a bunch of patents, and who delivered what was, by some accounts, the best PhD dissertation defense they’d ever heard (the topic was gravitational waves by the way).  Ready?

Ok, maybe you ended up with an Urkel-Doogie Howser hybrid: A super-nerd given to brutal hours in the lab, and for whom clothes are merely functional. Guess again.

Corwin was the absolute foil for the stereotypical inventor genius.  Firstly, he had movie-star good looks and a sense of style that would get an approving nod from even the most discerning fashionista.  On the day of a job interview at Makani, one future member of Corwin’s team was struck by the stranger in the long scarf and bare feet loitering in the machine shop. “Hmmm, we ARE in San Francisco,” he mused.  “Probably someone’s artist friend.” But when the elegant hippie stepped up to the lathe, carefully tucking his scarf behind him with a flourish, the kid was startled.  He didn’t remember engineers like this in his program at Stanford.  When he found out it was CEO himself, the kid’s world flipped upside down (and he knew he had to get this job).

Corwin led a major start-up, acting as its chief engineer, CEO, investor- and media-relations chief and cheerleader.  He was a friend to dozens of people and not in a pro forma acquaintance sense but in a real, Avatar-I-see-you, sense.  Though he toiled fantastic hours in service to his work Corwin was an athlete, a dancer, a baker and as one person put it at his memorial at Makani HQ last Saturday, “a craftsman of community.”  A little bit on each of these, but the bottom line for me is the stunning display of the possible that Corwin lived every single day.

Corwin’s love of the wind had very personal dimensions.  He was a kite-surfing pro, who nearly won the national championships two years in a row.  He was an uncompromising inclusivist who wanted to share his passions with as many people as possible.  Many a friend had been lured into the icy Pacific by Corwin’s persistent and inspiring needling.  A few, like Makani engineer Abe Schneider, even learned to love the sport – advancing so far as to join Corwin on one of his periodic commutes across the San Francisco Bay – kite-surfing from the Embarcadero to Alameda.

Corwin was a dancer, who reveled in contact improv and the free form modern dance popular in the Bay Area. And Corwin took even SF dancing up a notch – with a twitchy abandon that was mesmerizing and totally infectious.

Corwin was not your “ordinary” genius. He was socially adept and a humanist of the highest sort. Yes, he danced to the beat of his own drummer, and could rightly be classed as quirky, but this was someone you wanted to hang out with.  What’s more his brilliance was intimidating but not off-putting.  He certainly didn’t wear it on his sleeve or have any of the associated egoism or insecurity common to the super-smart.  He was ridiculously humble, eschewing praise for himself while diverting it to his team.

Every Friday, energy groupies flooded Corwin’s home in Duboce Triangle for what were known as “Friday dinners” – each housemate took a turn cooking and we’d come through to catch up over food and wine, to laugh and learn.  It was the “energy salon” and the topic was energy transformation rather than political transformation (though if you think about it, the two are really one and the same).  This was no old boys’ club either – guests of the energy salon were evenly matched between the sexes, with women inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs rounding out a typically boisterous crowd.

I was at a Friday dinner gathering one month ago. Gia Schneider, Corwin’s lady love and the Chair and CEO of Natel Energy, a small-hydro startup – was chef executive for the night.   She prepared some delightful cheesy puffed pastry tarts, lamb, salad and chocolate mousse for desert.  Corwin baked bread, his famous homemade bread.  Warm with fresh cream butter it was divine.  “Corwin liked to bake bread for his friends and break bread with his friends,” a friend said at his service. It was never a super late night because Corwin had surfing in the morning and dance class at 10.  But you always left feeling satisfied.

Corwin, despite his singular academic and professional achievements was an anti-individualist.  He was happiest at the center of a pack of like-minded innovators and forward thinkers. Though he thrived in community, Corwin was a born leader who couldn’t help but rise to the top.  As CEO of Makani he led not with an iron fist but by being himself.  People wanted to follow where he led.   The fluidity between his worklife and his life-life was probably another reason he was so successful.  Few of us get to work on what we love day in day out, but judging from Corwin’s example, it is another one of the habits of highly effective people.

The way Corwin used his gifts to enhance the human condition without harming the planet was exceptional.  We can’t let Makani fail now.  Clean-tech VCs unite!  Corwin’s vision is one you can get behind and you will count it as your legacy.  While the rest of us gripe about climate change, Corwin and his team have been building nuts-and-bolts solutions, an actual energy gamechanger that may help move the United States and the world away from fossil fuels forever.  This isn’t about scarcity or economic decline; it’s about being smarter and more agile, cunning and creative.  To the fossil industry and the new President we should all say on Corwin’s behalf:  Please, go fly a kite.

Clara Vondrich is Director of Leadership Initiatives at the Climate Works Foundation.

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