Why ‘Breakthrough’ Wind Turbines Are Usually Bunk

What’s not to love about a World War II veteran’s revolutionary new wind turbine that’s virtually silent and doesn’t harm birds? Just one small thing: It probably won’t work.

This is the history of wind turbine design breakthroughs. Paul Gipe, a prolific and respected writer on wind power, has seen a million of them. I asked him his view of the Catching Wind Power Compressed Air Enclosed Wind Turbine, which has been in the news a bit this past week after a New Jersey engineering firm put out a press release announcing it was looking for investors to help take the device from prototype to ready-to-manufacture product.

Catching Wind Power wind turbine

image via Catching Wind Power

Gipe wrote back: “It’s not original. It’s not new. It’s not significant in any way. It will be gone in a few years.”

Ouch.

Gerard Lynch, who owns Sigma Design Company in Middlesex, N.J., said he can understand the skepticism. But he defended the potential of the conical device, which the press release said “squeezes the incoming air, compressing it as it draws through the turbine and multiplies it creating more power.”

“We have a prototype that Raymond sent us and we did some preliminary testing that we think is encouraging,” Lynch said in a phone interview. “It’s not ready for commercialization, but we can make the technology work. Making it work as far as costs, what will be its price point, how it’s going to fit into the market — those are some of the unknowns.”

Raymond is Raymond Green, an 89-year-old from Jackson, Calif., identified by Sigma Design as “a World War II veteran and retired welder and operating engineer.” Green’s own website suggests that his efforts are equally motivated by a desire to make a better wind turbine, and a drive to put veterans to work building turbines.

It’s a great thought and maybe it’ll all happen. But Mike Bergey, president of Bergey Wind Power and a longtime leader in trying to bring rigor to the often vaporous world of small wind — his company’s Excel 10 was the first turbine to be certified by the Small Wind Certification Council — suspects not.

Over the years, Bergey has seen many variations on Green’s idea of capturing and compressing the wind.

“These ‘breakthroughs’ all fail commercially because when they get to a real world field test of a prototype the concentration effect turns out to be less significant than predicted and the performance falls well short of the inventor’s initial newsworthy claims,” Bergey told me in an email.

“It turns out that it’s easier for the wind to flow around the concentrator or diffuser, so less wind actually flows through the rotor. This poor actual performance combined with the significant added cost of the concentrator or diffuser structure invariably means that these turbines produce energy at higher costs than conventional non-augmented horizontal-axis wind turbines. That’s why these companies never get past a handful of installations in the field – the numbers just don’t work.”

Perhaps Raymond Green and Sigma Design will prove the experts wrong. Lynch certainly sounds utterly sincere in his desire to take a shot at turning the Catching Wind Power turbine into a finished product.

Then – but not before – Paul Gipe would be happy to give it a close look. As he writes on his website, citing the advice of German engineering professor Robert Gasch, “If there is a new wind turbine, no one should pay the slightest attention to it until they ‘build it, measure it, and publish’ the results. Until then, it’s just hot air – and nothing more.”

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000725615904 Dennis Jacques

      Your journalistic talents leave a lot to be desired. As does your objectivity.
      Do you have any test data? Did you ask for any?
      “..it probably won’t work.” isn’t even ballsy… it’s a way to cover your heiney if it turns out it does…. won’t be back…..

      • Pete Danko

        Hi Dennis,
        I talked to Jerry Lynch at Sigma Design, who was very good about answering questions, to learn more about the device’s potential, and that’s what yielded the quote about “preliminary testing that we think is encouraging.” The kind of data that would be needed to really know that the Raymond device can produce power as cost-effectively (or better) than today’s commercially available small-wind systems simply can’t exist, because the device is at such an early stage. We would need a long-term, free air trial. Given the obvious unavailability of that, I contacted Paul Gipe and Mike Bergey, two of the most respected small-wind experts that can be found anywhere, to help understand this type of device and its prospects, in general terms. As my story reports, they have both seen similar designs many times over, and based on that they are deeply skeptical that much will come of it. In the end, my story isn’t intended to forecast the future, but simply strives to give readers a foundation to view the many small-wind designs that come down the pike.
        Thank you,
        Pete Danko

    • HappyHappy JoyJoy

      Well, I’ll weigh on this. First of all Paul Gipe and Mike Bergey are questionable as experts. Just because you have been doing something the same way for 40 years means just that and only that. I wouldn’t call them experts or technologists on new design. Paul Gipe actually disclaims himself as an engineer and “peer reviewer” of technology on his own website. Check it for yourself. He is not an engineer or aerodynamicists by any stretch of the imagination nor would I trust him to review a card house design. As for Mike Bergey, Well he’s a small wind guy. Small wind has never been competitive or profitable for anyone without subsidies (even with it’s not worth buying), nor has any machine Bergey made been of any significant consequence or remotely efficient. It just another generic windturbine. If he, Bergey, is anything, welfare queen is that. Without the taxpayer, his business, doesn’t exist. Check out his airfoil design. Looks like something a kindergartner drew. It’s been panned and shot down as inefficient, just like micro-or small wind industry. I believe he sold his biz a long time ago, not even his anymore. They just keep ‘em around as a figurehead. I guess Bergey figures the more design he shoots down with his 40 year or so existence means more subsidies available for him and his co. that he represents.

      • Pete Danko

        Thank you for your comment.

        I introduced Paul Gipe as “a writer on wind power,” not as an engineer. I sought his comments in order to help me and EarthTechling readers understand if this design appeared to be new or groundbreaking. It was his opinion that given what he has seen over his many years as a close observer of wind power, it was not. Readers may decide if this is useful information or not.

        As for Mike Bergey, I believe his reputation in the field is quite at odds with what you present. At an event late last year in which he was a featured speaker, Karin Sinclair of the National Wind Tehcnology Center gave this introduction of Mr. Bergey, which readers might find helpful in assessing his expertise and the value of his opinions:

        “Mike is the co-Founder of Bergey Wind Company and he’s been President since 1987. He’s a Mechanical Engineer and he’s internationally recognized as an expert in the field of small wind turbines, distributed generation and rural electrification. He’s also authored many papers — more than 70 technical papers and articles in this field.

        “He’s provided testimony before Congress, he serves as a consultant to numerous government and international agencies, and he holds one patent in the wind energy field. He’s the current President of DWEA and he chairs their Federal Policy Committee.

        “He’s a past Chair of the AWEA Small Wind Turbine Committee. And he currently chairs the AWEA Small Wind Turbine Certification Committee. He serves on the Board of the Small Wind Certification Council, and he’s twice served as President of the AWEA, which is American Wind Energy Association, and he’s served on their Board of Directors from 1981 to 2007.

        “He’s a past Chairman of the U.S. Export Council of Renewable Energy, a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce Environmental Technology Trade Advisory Committee, and he’s President of the Oklahoma Renewable Energy Council.

        “So as you can see, Mike Bergey has a tremendous amount of experience. And he’s also been recognized for what he’s done in this area by receiving awards from AWEA.”

        Pete Danko
        EarthTechling.com

      • Michael Bergey

        Thank you for that HHJJ. I laughed so hard my ribs hurt. Please don’t go back on your med’s – you’re a national treasure just the way you are.

        But just to keep you honest, let’s do some fact checking: 1) I am a mechanical engineer, so I do understand the mathy parts; 2) I am a small wind guy, but I was also president of big wind’s American Wind Energy Association, twice in fact, and their Man of the Year once; 3) our customers get the tax credits and last year our company paid more federal income taxes than ExxonMobile; 4) our current airfoils are state-of-the art, designed with computational fluid dynamics and tested by the National Renewable Energy Labs along with their most advanced designs; 5) my dad, Karl, who holds a graduate degree in aerodynamics from MIT and who designed the Piper Cherokee, is probably a better judge of airfoil technology than you and your friends; 6) my father and I still own the company; and 7) our 10 kW was the first small wind turbine to be fully certified to the new AWEA standards and its the best selling turbine of its size in the world. Is that a significant consequence?

        I’m guessing you are hawking some wacko wind turbine idea and your potential investors got a little spooked by our comments. I doubt your lame attack on us is going to do the trick.

    • HappyHappy JoyJoy

      Looks like I hit a nerve. So your a mech eng, I don’t recall writing that you were not. I said welfare queen. And stand by it. My apologies for not kissing the AWEA ring! Ooops, looks like the smart guys in Big Wing booted you from the club. I guess the smart genes didn’t transfer through to you. Congratulations on spelling CFD. Just about every company on the planet uses code in one form or another. Nothing special about that. Can you spell CATIA? In 2012, design is made virtually before ever being built. If you pay more in taxes than Exxon, why are your “taxing” NREL with design. Can’t pay for it yourself? That generic thing you make isn’t special, nor is your questionable “expertise”. Micro-wind, small wind didn’t make sense in the past, the present, and you can wipe your shoe with it tomorrow. Dollars are scare and should be committed to sensible projects that make a BIG impact in RE. You do not.
      Are you really sure that you own the company…

      http://en.openei.org/wiki/Beijing_Bergey_Windpower_Co_Ltd

      The 70’s called. They want the whirlygig you made back!

    • Michael Bergey

      As RR famously said, “There you go again”. HHJJ you’re welcome to call me whatever you’d like. But since large wind systems have received federal tax credits since 1992 and small wind only since 2009, what do you call GE, Vestas, Siemens, Suzlon, Gamesa, Clipper, etc and the thousands of American companies that supply goods and services to these large wind turbine manufacturers? Or to my fellow businessmen in the oil & gas business who use depletion allowances, intangible drilling costs, manufacturing tax credits, and the like to pay federal income taxes at 1/5 the rate this “welfare queen” does? More fact checking on your lame attacks: 1) we’ve been using 3D solid modeling since 1998. CATIA was unaffordable to small companies at that time. We use SolidWorks, which is now owned by the developers of CATIA, Dassault Systemes; 2) read your own link: Beijing Bergey Windpower is our wholly-owned subsidiary in China. So, HHJJ, when are you going to quit hiding behind an anonymous screen name and inform us of your qualifications to offer credible opinions on wind technology and the wind business? Come on, I dare you.

    • Pete Danko

      Now that we’ve had a back-and-forth about the sources cited in this story, it would be great if future comments could focus on wind turbines. The personal attacks are getting old.
      Pete Danko
      EarthTechling

    • http://twitter.com/cshotton Chuck Shotton

      A simple thought experiment shows this is BS. Replace the device with a cone, completely sealed at the end,with the base open to and facing the air flow. Zero air flow through the turbine. Now snip a tiny bit off the end of the cone. Just a tiny bit of air flows through. Larger bit, more air. Continue until the cone is trimmed to nothing more than a ring at its base. Maximum air flow. The device is guaranteed to perform worse than a simple windmill of the same surface area.

      • http://web.mac.com/deweaver Dallas Weaver

        No. Venturi effects will result in higher wind velocity in the throat. The only thing that kills this type of concept is the size of the structure and economics– it can’t extract any pore power/M2 than a windmill of the same diameter but it could cost a lot more. The advantage comes from the high velocity of the wind in the throat and high turbine RPM resulting in a smaller generator for the same power.

        • http://twitter.com/cshotton Chuck Shotton

          The Venturi effect explains increased velocity of air through the turbine. But it doesn’t increase the volume of airflow. So for a given amount of surface area, the net increase in generation capacity is zero. The only gain is a smaller surface area requirement for the turbine blades. But there’s no way it can generate more power. There’s a fixed amount of energy in the airflow, regardless of velocity. So this is still BS.

          • http://web.mac.com/deweaver Dallas Weaver

            The energy is determined by the outer diameter (surface area) of the venturi which is what I said. It is economics that kills it.

    • Robert Wahler

      The bird strike issue is overblown. Read reliable sources.

      • Pete Danko

        Hi Robert — The bird strike issue is overblown by some, to be sure. But I would also suggest that by others, the bird strike issue is underblown (c’mon, that should be a word). Some sites are bad for birds, others can have a very minimal and quite acceptable impact on birds. Siting is everything.

    • http://www.facebook.com/neil.levine.9 Neil Levine

      Hydro and waterwheels are usually cheaper and, thus, more affordable but Obama has his own facts and figures. Water flows 24 7 365 versus one third of the time for intermittent wind. Water is 865 times heavier than the same volume of wind and can be scaled up. Etc.

    • Guest

      Discuss that with the owners of the wind turbines in the Coachella Valley. Oh, that’s right you’ve never heard of the Coachella Valley.

    • Alex Kollitz

      The article sums up the reality of this design quite nicely. Anyone who thinks a concentrator type design will be more efficient than a standard three bladed wind turbine simply does not know wind. Get in the industry, experiment and the wind will school you. Wind is fickle, any concentrator is simply seen by the wind as an obstruction and it will go around it, follows the path of least resistance. How do I know? I introduced a “revolutionary” wind turbine back in the early 2000’s. It wasn’t until we bought time in a wind tunnel to control all of the variables that we could really see how great our concentrator design was. How about a whopping 3% efficiency? With a lot of redesign we got it up to 22%. It looked nothing like our original design. All of the concentrator features had been eliminated. We ran out of wind tunnel time before we could optimize the new path we were heading, but based on the results I believe it is possible to see 35% efficiency from a vertical axis drag based design.

      Paul Gipe and Mike Bergey are two very knowledgeable experts in the field. It doesn’t take long in the industry to be able to quickly asses a design and determine its merits. I applaud Raymond Green his efforts and goals, and as a veteran myself, I appreciate and am grateful for his service and desire to help veterans, but this design is simply not viable.

    • lightweight_windpower

      The quote of the German professor is clearly not logical. If a design has not been proven, it doesn’t follow that it has no value (“hot air”). What if the designer does not have the resources to “build it, measure it, and publish”? In that case the only route is to present the design, so that it can receive support. But if everyone follows the professor’s advice, no one will look at it and the design will never go anywhere. The implicit message here is “only the recognized experts in the field have the ability to create a good design”. Not a good message, since some of those experts have trouble thinking outside the box and are often more concerned about their professional reputations or their big corporate backers. History is replete with this kind of error.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alex-Lester/100001046509730 Alex Lester

      What no reliable computer simulation of a rather simple system? After all we are expected to believe such computer simulations are very accurate about global climate so why not on a simple system such as these?