Machine Design

The wind industry needs more inventors

Next time your TV viewing habits include watching the Cleveland Indians playing at home, keep an eye out for the ballpark’s newly installed wind turbine. It is an innovative design, but it’s only there because the Indians didn’t have to pay for much of it. Cleveland’s vice president of ballpark operations recently admitted that the club used grants, subsidies, and other spiffs — i.e., other people’s money — to justify the installation. The few kilowatts of power it will generate are an insignificant percentage of what the ballpark consumes.

You can’t blame the Indians for taking advantage of “free money.” But the process by which they came to install a wind turbine is a snapshot of the unhealthy situation that characterizes the wind industry: Unless installed by hobbyists, most wind turbines are built only because of subsidies, not because of economic feasibility. Consider the comments of the Texas State Energy Conservation Office a few years ago which conceded, “For wind farms being installed today, the production tax credit is still the main driver of economic viability.” The PTC is a corporate tax credit for several renewable sources, including wind, which credits 2.2¢/kW-hr for electricity generated by wind power. Wind producers have even been known to pay users to take their energy just so they can get the PTC.

If there was ever an energy source in need of technological progress to be economically viable, it is wind power. That is why we devoted a few pages in this issue to looking at novel designs for wind turbines. Readers will note none of these ideas come from mainstream wind-turbine manufacturers. Turbine makers today seem to act a little like Detroit automakers of the 1970s and 80s: Despite criticism of their designs, they’d rather push the models already in their brochures than go back to the drawing board to come up with something better.

The wind-turbine designs we highlight are products of independent inventors who have noted the many difficulties of commercial wind-turbine architectures. In particular, they have tried to devise ways of fielding wind turbines that are less costly and more reliable than those that occupy wind farms today.

A case in point is the wind turbine now adorning the Indians’ home field. Designed by Dr. Majid Rashidi of Cleveland State University, it is a noncommercial prototype that uses a cylindrical structure with a helical shape to deflect wind into small-scale turbines on its sides. This lets Rashidi’s turbines begin turning in light breezes that wouldn’t budge the blades on most other designs. They are essentially noiseless thanks to diffuser rings that reduce the wind currents traveling along the blades. And the design uses inexpensive materials that are easy to find and relatively simple to assemble.

Proponents of the wind industry have predicted dire consequences if legislators fail to extend wind’s production tax credit. But their arguments begin to sound like those of automakers and their Armageddon-like pronouncements about CAFE standards decimating their industry. Windturbine makers would be better served listening to some of the inventors who want to make wind power practical without spending other people’s money to subsidize it.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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