FREEVILLE, N.Y. — Wind energy is stuck in a rut.
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Just as solar energy for the home has gotten dramatically cheaper and easier to install, wind energy has stalled. The biggest hurdle is how to make wind turbines for residential use last long enough to be worth the cost of construction, when they’re expected to process and convert ferocious amounts of power.
Enter Art Weaver. A few years ago, the former Cornell researcher got an $800,000 grant from New York state to resolve this very question: How do you build an effective yet durable wind turbine for the home?
“The principal obstacle, the principal problem, with all the other wind turbines is: ‘How do you control the darn thing so it lasts?,’” Weaver says.
Weaver and his team at Weaver Wind in Freeville think they now have an answer. They call it the “Weaver Five.”
1 — What is the Weaver 5, and how does it work?
One of my favorite characters from Star Trek is Scotty, the heavily-accented engineer who is always warning Capt. James T. Kirk that the Starship Enterprise is using too much of its power. “You can’t push it any faster, Jim!,” is Scotty’s memorable refrain.
I bring up Scotty to illustrate the central innovation of Weaver Wind’s new turbine: It works as an automated Scotty, preventing the system of the turbine from being overloaded — and, therefore, crippled — when the wind blows too fiercely.
Most small wind turbines previously on the market, Weaver explains, “got into trouble or completely died” because of a simple reason: An upsurge in kinetic energy forces the alternator — which generates the electricity — to go too fast, too quickly, reach its limits and burn out.
“You have to avoid that situation, pretty much at all costs, if you want a machine that lasts,” Weaver says.
Weaver says he has found an answer to the solution. His team calls it “active furling” — using a nautical term to describe how a ship’s sail can be rolled up. Weaver has added a small motor that works to move the wind vane of the turbine, which in turn has the air enter the device at a parallel — rather than perpendicular — angle.
That’s done through a micro-controller, programmed with an algorithm, that measures different factors within the turbine, testing for things like wind speed and wind current, and responds accordingly. “So it has redundant levels of control,” Weaver says.
Weaver says that when he first had the idea, he assumed he couldn’t have been the first to it.
“We did a patent search and, amazingly enough, there was none,” he says.
The patent for the Weaver 5 is now pending. A couple of months ago, a national certification company called Intertech gave the device its rubber stamp. And then, earlier this week, Weaver got further recognition: N.Y. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the third most powerful official in the state, visited him at Union Street in Freeville to see the device himself.
With their product ready to go, Weaver says, the big push now is getting it out in the market — and sold.
But the bigger change may still be ahead: Will the Weaver 5 really change how people get their energy?
2 — Blowing in the wind
Experts say there are a few crucial points of context to keep in mind when evaluating the potential impact of the Weaver 5:
1) Solar’s runaway success in driving down prices and easing the installation process could make it difficult for wind to find a place in the renewable energy market, which remains relatively small despite recent growth;
2) Wind power is not yet big enough in the home market to really make a dent in our emissions use.
The Weaver 5 could help change that, they say — but it’s probably too soon to tell.
“Solar’s cost has been plummeting … and I think that provides stiff competition for small wind turbines,” says Marguerite Wells, vice president and project manager of Black Oak Wind Farm, which produces wind power on an industrial (rather than residential) scale.
“I like Art and think what he’s doing is valuable, but it’s a tough market, across the board … Homeowners have a limited number of dollars on doing something green — and there’s fierce competition right now.”
Still, Wells said wind power had some distinct advantages — it doesn’t take up as much physical space as the solar panels, for instance — that Weaver’s invention may help unleash.
“(Weaver) is absolutely correct: One of the obstacles to more widespread use of small wind turbines is maintenance and reliability, and I do know that’s how they designed their turbines, with that in mind,” Wells says.
“Whether he’s cracked it or not, I can’t say.”
But if something like the Weaver 5 does represent a leap forward for wind use, it could play an important role as a supplement in the growing sector of renewable energy, says Graham Kerslick, executive director of the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University.
“These mini- or -micro-turbines — you can put them on the top of flat-roof buildings or even between buildings,” he said, adding that it’s telling that NYSERDA (the state agency which gave Weaver the grant) was interested in this option. (Kerslick noted he has no specific knowledge about the Weaver 5.)
Similarly, Nick Goldsmith, sustainability coordinator for Ithaca, said what Weaver Wind has done has at least the potential to play “an important role” in a diversifying energy portfolio.
“While the industry trend seems to be towards huge, utility scale wind turbines, Weaver Wind Energy’s small 5 kilowatt and 15 kilowatt models could potentially play an important role, by allowing us to take advantage of our wind energy potential on a smaller scale,” Goldsmith says.
“It’s exciting that these new turbines are being designed and assembled locally … Art Weaver is a great example of the high level of innovation and dedication we often take for granted.”
3 — Strong headwinds ahead
Despite the praise, Weaver says he knows he’s up against long odds.
“The market is a fickle thing,” he says. “I’m tempted to say our success will depend on how well we do in marketing. We know what we have is an excellent product.”
But in addition to long-standing questions about wind power’s durability and the rapid emergence of solar, cost remains a factor: Most Weaver 5 models, depending on size and scale, run well in excess of $40,000, according to its website.
“It’s competitive with other small wind turbines of this size,” Weaver says of the price. “It used to be very competitive with solar, a decade, ago, it is not any longer. This is why I’ve chosen to emphasize the complementarity of the two energy sources rather than the economic disparity.”
So far, Weaver says they’ve sold six wind turbines. At least Weaver, 55, knows that this isn’t his first plunge into the renewable energy market. Weaver was also the founder of Renovus Energy, but later left the company shortly before its current expansion.
Weaver said he did so in part because he wanted to tackle the different problem of wind energy. He assembled a group that now includes two summer interns, a project assistant, a mechanical engineer and, soon, a wind turbine production manager.
Trained as a physicist, Weaver started his career doing laboratory research and moved to Cornell to work at the university’s Synchrotron about 16 years ago.
Then he decided to strike out on his own.
“I decided it was high time that renewable energy get started in Ithaca rather than sitting in my lab and cranking out research papers,” he says of his decision. “So that’s what I did.”
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