“What if you could scoop the air? Scoop it and move it downward, amplifying its kinetic energy along the way, concentrate it to a single point of intensity, the way a magnifying glass concentrates sunlight to a single incendiary point?”
Dr. Daryoush Allaei, an engineer and founder of Sheerwind, an innovative wind power company, is concentrating his unique thought process on harnessing wind energy in new ways.
“And assuming you could do this technically, could you do it on a large enough scale to make it economically feasible?” Allaei writes in his company description. “More to the point, could you generate energy so inexpensively that it stages a renaissance?”
Sheerwind is pushing the boundaries of wind power innovation with its bladeless wind turbine, called INVELOX. The turbines funnel wind into ground-level generators through a tapering passageway that squeezes and accelerates the air. The units are about half as tall as traditional wind towers, which rise up to 260 feet into the air, and the ground-based turbine blades are more than 80 percent smaller than conventional wind turbine blades, which are about 115-feet long. The device resembles a giant gramophone that sucks in wind instead of blurting out sound.
Sheerwind represents a small point in the larger picture of wind power development, itself part of the story of renewable energy technology. The entire history of power generation, from Ben Franklin’s kite experiments 250 years ago to deep sea drilling for oil and gas is a complex tale of imaginative inventiveness riding up against economic realities. As wind power takes hold across the world, developers are constantly looking for new ways to make the technology lighter, faster, and more efficient but some of the most inventive ideas are often stymied by a lack of financial support during early stages.
Pushing The Envelope
In an emblematic fashion, the world’s largest and most powerful wind turbine swung into gear at the Danish National Test Centre for Large Wind Turbines in January. The turbine is 720-feet tall, has 260-foot blades, and can generate eight MW of power — enough to supply electricity for up to 3,200 U.S. households. Sheerwind, on the other end of the spectrum, is working on installing a 200-kilowatt system in Royalton, a small Minnesota town that wants to showcase an industrial park.
“With any paradigm-changing technology there’s also push-back,” said Carla Scholz, marketing and communications director for Sheerwind, about working with larger, more established wind power companies. “They’re all starting to pay a bit more attention. We’re working towards the next round of raising funds. No one will fund new technology like this; you literally need someone with very deep pockets or something that’s already privately funded and ready to go. Tons of people want to test them for us.”
But going from testing prototypes to installing power-generating, grid-feeding wind capacity requires a strong tailwind. A number of innovative wind prototypes have experienced brief blazes of media and industry attention only to struggle to reach the next level of development. Saphon Energy is another start-up making headlines recently for its imaginative technology and the story of its Tunisian founder, Anis Aouini.
Aouini founded the Tunisian-based company, which revolves around what he’s deemed “The Saphonian” –- a bladeless, circular body that wobbles in the wind, resembling a bare speaker blasting heavy bass. The example on the website is also plastered with the image of a sunflower. “By replacing the turbine blades by a sail-shaped body that enjoys high aerodynamic drag coefficient, our Zero-Blade device is capable of capturing twice as much wind kinetic energy as conventional bladed wind turbine for the same swept area,” reads the company description.
Aouini developed the technology during the 2011 Tunisian revolution, which offered the opportunity for companies without ties to the regime to break through, according to an interview he did with OZY. Aouini hopes his invention will inspire a new generation of Tunisian inventors. The Saphonian is slated to start commercializing this year, but going from earning the 2013 Innovation Prize for Africa to earning money in the global energy economy will not be easy.
“I would be highly, highly skeptical of such a device,” Scott Greene, director of the Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative, told OZY. “There have been a large number of alternative wind-energy designs over the years, and none has come close to matching the cost and effectiveness of the traditional design.”
Emily Williams, Senior Policy Analyst for the American Wind Energy Association, won’t speak directly about unproven technologies like the Saphonian, but is quick to point out the challenges companies like Saphon Energy and Sheerwind face.
“What developers and the wind industry want to see is a track record on how things like bladeless technologies work,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of new designs in the prototype phase that need to prove they can deliver and capture wind economically. If these turbines are designs just trying to appeal to Joe Smith to put in the backyard, that’s a different scale than if they want to have utility-scale application to sell power under 30-year contracts.”
The Wind Will Not Stop Blowing
As of October, the U.S. had 60 gigawatts (GW) of installed wind capacity, according to the Department of Energy. A one-megawatt wind turbine generates enough electricity to power 240 to 400 U.S. households, so one GW of wind energy could power between 240,000 and 400,000 U.S. homes.
Across the world, Europe has been a wind energy leader. As of February, the EU had 117.3 GW of installed wind energy capacity — 110.7 GW onshore and 6.6 GW offshore. With an average growth rate of 25 percent between 2006 and 2011, wind power was the fastest-growing renewable energy source, according to the International Energy Agency. At the end of 2013, global wind power capacity was 318 GW, up from just 18 GW at the turn of the millennium. A new study by Grand View Research, Inc. found that global capacity could reach 760 GW by 2020. China is seeing significant growth, as well, adding 14 GW to grid-connected wind power capacity in 2013, the fifth consecutive year with installations totaling over 10 GW, and an additional 56 GW of wind has already been permitted.
Even though the wind power industry is itself still in the early stages of capitalizing on the enormous potential of wind as an energy resource, innovative start-up companies like Allaei’s Minnesota-based Sheerwind face innumerable challenges in breaking into the “747-on-a-flagpole” establishment of conventional turbines. Conventional wind turbines, on and and offshore, continue to undergo major technological innovation and process reevaluation in an effort to bring down costs and increase efficiency. The industry must keep pace with both fossil fuel power sources, one of the deepest-rooted economic paradigms, and other renewable sources, such as solar and geothermal. As wind energy gains more of a foothold, the people who operate the electric grid will have to deal with more and more energy that does not come at the push of a button. So the wind industry will also need to improve on storage capacity and reliability that are currently provided by fossil fuels like natural gas.
Along the way, wind companies, technologies, and even subsidies will rise and fall but the growth of wind power around the world is indisputable. This despite the influence of certain outside forces such as anti-clean energy lobbying groups like ALEC or billionaires concerned about obstructed views from their Cape Cod mansions.
Innovating Through Uncertainty
Meanwhile, in the world of traditional, ‘30-year contract’ type wind technology there’s a lot of research into new designs to reduce weight, scale up offshore technology and optimize energy output, according to Williams. Furthermore, companies like IBM and GE are taking data collected from turbines and developing software algorithms to do things like optimize wind capture by adjusting and turning blades through independent controls.
GE is currently developing a space frame wind turbine tower that is built out of struts locked together. The structure can accommodate heavy weight, like turbine blades, while using 20 to 30 percent less steel than conventional turbine towers. The space frame can also be shipped in pieces that can fit in long-haul trailers, reducing complex transportation logistics associated with conventional turbine towers and making installation faster and easier.
“People are trying to innovate on turbine design around the world,” Williams said. “As you scale up traditional wind turbines there’s neat research happening into segmented blades to address some of the transportation challenges of moving big blades.”
Williams said that in the last five years, the portion of U.S. wind turbines made domestically has gone from one-fourth to three-fourths, in terms of value, in large part because of how expensive it is to move components. International firms such as Vestas and Siemans have set up facilities in the Midwest while several U.S. companies that formally specialized in yacht building have transitioned to manufacturing these molded fiberglass towers.
Aside from the physical challenges of hauling yacht-length behemoths, there are similarly complex financial and political routes to navigate.
“For a number of years we had policy stability that really incentivized companies to come to the U.S.,” Williams said. “2012 was the wind industry’s best year ever, but in 2013 that fell dramatically because of federal inaction to extend the Production Tax Credit.”
2012 was the wind industry’s best year ever, but in 2013 that fell dramatically because of federal inaction to extend the Production Tax Credit.
The Production Tax Credit (PTC), a federal renewable electricity production tax credit, expired at the end of 2013 due to inaction by Congress. The credit offers generators of certain renewable energies, such as wind, 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour in an effort to support development of these industries. Originally enacted as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, Congress has extended the provision five times and let it expire five times, the most recent expiration being December 2013.
“This on-again/off-again status has resulted in a boom-bust cycle of development,” wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists earlier this year. “In the years following expiration, installations dropped between 76 and 93 percent, with corresponding job losses.”
Short-term extensions of the PTC are insufficient for sustaining the long-term growth of renewable energy, the statement says, arguing that developers depending on the PTC to attain cost effectiveness may hesitate to start new projects due to the uncertainty of the enterprise. Wind power prices continue to drop in the meantime, and have fallen 43 percent in the last few years according to Williams. Wind power came within 5.5 percent of the cost of electricity from coal at the end of 2013, according to a Bloomberg analysis, and is 90 percent cheaper than it was twenty years ago.
The U.S. is not the only country scaling back wind power subsidies. In this time of low political drive, the emergence of low-wind technology may help carry the industry through to the next boom as it approaches cost competitiveness and overcomes hurdles like a lack of transmissions lines.
“We’ve seen growth in the last few years in some places that haven’t had wind,” Williams said. “Taller towers made wind economical in Ohio, for instance. Projects are also being pursued across the Southeast, which has a great manufacturing footprint, but is a lower wind resource.”
Low-wind technology has developed via key innovations to existing technologies, such as longer, thinner blades and redesigned load control. “Such additions of innovative product features to previous designs is an ongoing trend in the wind industry, requiring less time for R&D; than a full redesign, and cutting risk and cost,” writes Eize de Vries in a recent article about advanced wind power technology for Wind Power Monthly. “While the risks of incremental developments are often significantly lower, long-term advancement of technology also requires radical innovative designs,” she explains. “Higher initial overall risks and costs can be expected, but the developers and investors can also expect superior, longer-term overall gains.”
Having The Power To Break Through
One area where high-risk innovation and deep financial resources overlap is with the company Makani Power. The U.S. Department of Energy-funded wind power start-up that uses kite-bound, airborne wind turbines was purchased by Google last May. While the turbine requires massive amounts of space to operate and is up against a number of wind variability challenges, Williams considers it one of the most realistic alternatives to traditional turbines. Makani Power declined to comment for this article, saying they are not currently talking to the press.
As part of Google X, the division of Google devoted to breakthrough technologies, the Makani Airborne Wind Turbine is in the hands of the same select people working on Google Glass. Resembling a radio-controlled propeller plane tethered to a generator, the device circumscribes a large circle in the sky sending power down to the ground all the while. In a stormy sky, one would almost expect to see Ben Franklin holding the other end of the cord, celebrating the discovery of electricity all over again.
However, the Makani turbine wouldn’t need Franklin around, as it’s a fully autonomous flight system and can land itself in the case of poor flying conditions. One more innovation to add to the list.