Debunking Wind Turbine Fads

Guest Blog | June 1, 2015 | Energy Policy, Wind
This is a computer generated image of the Vortex Bladeless Wind Turbines. An unskeptical eye could believe these turbines are ready for offshore installation - when nothing could be further from the truth.

Wind turbine technology is rapidly evolving. Taller turbines, longer blades and advanced composites are just a few ways the wind industry are reducing costs while boosting performance. But legitimate research, development and improvement of wind turbines can be marginalized by fad wind turbines. Fad wind turbines, like a bladeless wind turbine or a “tree” turbine, fly around social media at breakneck speeds – frequently with claims of solving all the ailments of the renewable energy industries. But buyer beware.

Fad wind turbines do double duty for anti-renewable energy activists: they perpetuate false negative stereotypes of wind power, and then fail to deliver substantial quantities of clean, cheap power.

Fad wind turbines support negative and incorrect stereotypes of conventional turbines (the big, three-bladed ones), including arguments regarding birds, noise, price, size and low wind speeds, as marketing tactics and ploys to get media attention and money. Then, when fad wind turbines don’t live up to their over-hyped promise, they validate an otherwise false negative stereotype: that wind turbines fail to meet expectations.

If you do a quick search for a “wind turbine” over at Kickstarter, you’ll find dozens of strange, “revolutionary” inventions purporting to solve a particular sensationalized problem. So, how can you tell if a new wind turbine design is a viable technology?

When something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be cautious of small wind turbines that claim to “power a whole home,” “cut prices in half,” “eliminate” noise or bird concerns, or “generate power at extremely low wind speeds.” Buzzwords and phrases that raise red flags include things like “game changer,” “radical,” “holy grail,” a “technological leap forward” and “revolutionary.”

Applying simple critical thinking skills can further aid in debunking fad wind turbines. We’ll use the most recent Vortex Bladeless Wind Turbine fad as an example, but these questions should always be asked of any new wind turbine. 

Is it certified by the Small Wind Certification Council?

The Small Wind Certification Council independently verifies claims made by inventors and manufacturers of small-scale wind turbines. So many types of small-scale turbines exist that the Small Wind Certification Council was developed to protect consumers from misleading and inaccurate statements made by would-be turbine salesmen. The Small Wind Certification Council provides professional-level research and analysis, so less experienced consumers don’t have to become experts in small wind turbine performance capabilities. The Small Wind Certification Council’s certification is so vital, that the Internal Revenue Service recently released updated guidance regarding the 30% federal tax credit for small-scale wind turbines: if the turbine you’re looking to purchase is not certified by the Small Wind Certification Council, it will not qualify for the federal tax credits.

The Small Wind Certification Council even lists companies, and turbine models, that have at least applied for certification evaluation. The Vortex Bladeless Wind Turbine has not received, nor even filed an application for independent review by the SWCC. That turbine technology is far from commercial development.

Is this turbine available for sale?

No, the Vortex Bladeless Wind Turbine is not for sale currently. Those sleek, white, cigarette-shaped structures in a field is a computer-generated image. The inventors have created a structure, but a single structure does not represent commercial viability. They make it clear that the machine is just a prototype and that they hope to produce a working 4 kilowatt prototype for further research. The Vortex is not being manufactured. It’s not for sale.

Is it scalable? 

In other words, how many of these new Vortex turbines would be required to replace a “conventional” (three-bladed type) wind turbine? Well, presuming the 4 kilowatt prototype Vortex Bladeless Wind Turbine achieves all it claims to (as will be shown later, that’s a near impossibility), you would need 500 to replace a single 2 megawatt (or 2,000 watt) conventional wind turbine. But that’s only part of the story.

How does it perform?

No data have been provided publicly regarding the Vortex Bladeless Wind Turbine energy output, capacity factor, or average wind speeds necessary in order to operate. Wind turbine performance is based on kinetic wind energy (air density as well as wind speed). Performance is usually rated as a “capacity factor” – or an annual, average percentage of the “nameplate” capacity (in this case, that’d be 4 kilowatts).  The inventors found that oscillation occurred with an ideal wind speed of 26 mile per hour (that’s 11.63 meters per second – an outrageously fast wind speed). Blade-less wind turbines make about as much sense as sail-less sailboats, and wing-less airplanes.

How much does it cost? 

No one knows. The Vortex inventors “hope” that the turbine “could” reduce material and operation costs. Without this critical information, there is absolutely no way to determine how effective the Vortex Bladeless Wind Turbine could be. Thus far, the project has raised roughly $1.1 million from European governments and private investors.

Have others tried bladeless technology?

Yes, and they failed miserably. For instance, the Fuller Wind Turbine System was a bladeless wind turbine announced in 2010 by a company called Solatec LLC. Now, Solatec LLC’s website is defunct and is available for sale – hardly a success. In 2012, Saphon Energy announced a “bladeless wind turbine” and was immediately met with skepticism: “Too good to be true?” one article asked. Saphon still operates a website, but it’s last news update was from February 2014 announcing some sort of “alliance” with Microsoft to develop a prototype. Evidently, the Vortex is based off experiments completed over 30 years ago regarding wind oscillation – the results of those experiments showed that the turbine was unstable and didn’t exceed performance of “standard” wind turbines of the day. If oscillating wind turbines couldn’t outperform 30-year old “standard” wind turbines, what hope is there that they’d topple today’s modern turbines? Even in the Vortex’s promotional video, they use a frightening image of a bridge breaking apart from wind oscillation – an image that does not inspire confidence that the inventors will be able to solve vibration problems.

What are the benchmarks?

In other words, why is the Vortex Bladeless Wind Turbine better than other forms of energy? Modern, conventional wind turbines have reached 2-3 megawatts nameplate capacity, 40-55% capacity factors and can generate electricity in the $0.02-$0.035 per kilowatt hour range. If the Vortex can’t beat economic, performance or technical benchmarks, there has to be some other reason than to support it. Many people assume that since it has no blades, that it will be completely safe for birds; but that assertion is unfounded. Many stationary man-made objects kill birds. Buildings kill roughly a billion birds annually and telecommunication towers kill another 6.8 million; both without blades. To put that in perspective, buildings kill roughly 3,000 times more birds than all existing wind turbines in the United States, every single year.

Could it actually do more harm to the environment?

Absolutely. As mentioned previously, you’d need at least 500 Vortexs to equal the same capacity as one single modern turbine; however, that figure only accounts for nameplate capacity, not actual power generation. Presumably there’s a very narrow band of wind speeds where the oscillating (vibration which leads to generation) occurs – too slow, and no oscillation occurs; too fast, and no oscillation occurs. If you’ve ever made a wine glass sing with a damp finger tip – you already know that a perfect speed exists to create resonant frequency. Generously assuming a 5% capacity factor, you’d actually need about 4,000 Vortex turbines to equal the same amount of power from one single modern wind turbine. To replace all the power generated by all the conventional wind turbines in the United States, you’d need roughly 79,908,675 Vortexs.  Again, that’s a generous guestimate (that’s all we have since no data are public) – the figure could actually be much worse than that. At 41 feet tall, the nearly 80 million Vortex turbines would represent a huge risk to birds (since any manmade structure is a danger for birds) and a vast consumer of land.

Trust, but Verify

The point is simple: don’t jump on a bandwagon until you’ve done your due diligence. The hype surrounding the Vortex Bladeless Wind Turbine could turn out to be true (we can check back in 18 months, when a commercial version is due to be out); but, as history has shown with other bladeless wind turbines, success would be an exception and not the rule.

Online publications are doing a real disservice to the future of clean tech (and their readers) by perpetuating the hype of fad wind turbines without hard data. If people begin investing in the Vortex Bladeless Wind Turbine through some sort of crowd-sourcing effort (as the inventors announced, is their intended way of getting more money), because they read a sensational article from online news sources such as GizmagWIREDPhys.orgCleanTechnica and Grist; who should be held liable if the investment doesn’t pan out?

Sharing blogs and tossing good money into crowd source campaigns, without good data and research, perpetuates the hype. Some “revolutionary” turbine inventors and sellers peddle the same false negative stereotypes of conventional wind turbines that anti-renewable energy activists employ. Coincidentally, the Vortex turbine has taken money from Repsol – a major Spanish oil and gas company.

The fact of the matter is conventional wind turbines are efficient, affordable, and good for the environment. Some fad wind turbines may end up actually being a game-changer one day, but the nirvana fallacies of fad turbines solving all of the perceived downsides to wind energy should not prevent us from benefitting today from the great wind technology we already have.

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