Small-scale turbine maker in Barrio Logan
By Onell Soto
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Wind power isn't just about towering turbines in the desert producing electricity for thousands of homes at a time.
It can be done on a much smaller scale, and a start-up San Diego company is hoping to prove it can be profitable.
Helix Wind, based in Barrio Logan, has developed an innovative turbine design, which spins on a vertical, rather than horizontal axis, that it says will help produce power in remote areas far from the electric grid — and in big cities like Chicago.
And it is buying up a couple of other small turbine makers, which it says will enable it to offer a variety of products depending on what its customers need.
The company hopes to capitalize by expanding “small wind” development into new areas such as urban cell towers, homes, cruise ships and billboards. The small wind industry focuses on turbines that produce enough power for a few light bulbs or a few houses, not neighborhoods.
“Twenty, thirty years ago, they were farm equipment,” said Ron Stimmel, who tracks the industry for the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group. But in recent years, they've gotten more popular as a source of renewable energy because they are less expensive than comparably sized solar arrays. The appeal is visceral, Stimmel said.
“It's a very tangible thing to do,” he said. “Every time it spins around, you get green electrons.”
Sales of the units grew 78 percent last year to more than 10,000 nationwide, Stimmel said, but he doesn't know what effect the recession, tight credit or federal incentives such as a 30 percent tax credit have had this year.
“I suspect growth, but I don't know how much,” he said.
The industry is made up of several hundred companies, Stimmel said.
Helix's goal is to re-engineer small wind and sell it as a commodity, said President Scott Weinbrandt, a former Gateway and Dell executive who went on to start a company that made electronic signatures on legal documents possible.
Helix is pushing, for instance, to sell turbines to companies that need a steady supply of power in remote areas, places such as ski resorts, cell-phone towers, oil derricks and cruise ships.
“Those applications today are being supplied by diesel generators,” Weinbrandt said.
The wind turbines won't replace the generators — the wind doesn't blow that steady and strong — but they mean diesel use may be radically reduced.
Even in places with a connection to the electric grid, a wind turbine might make sense.
Helix last week signed a deal for a demonstration project with Core Communications, a Orange County cell-phone tower developer, for two tower-mounted turbines in Riverside and Los Angeles counties.
One of the things they hope to find out is whether the turbines will make more power than the towers need, making it possible to sell it back onto the grid.
They also want to find out how difficult it will be to get permits for the towers, and what kind of reaction to expect from neighbors in an urban environment, Core Chairman Keith Pinter said.
A new wave of towers is required for the coming fourth-generation, or 4G, wireless networks, and companies are looking for a way to put them in while lightening the impact on the environment, Pinter said.
“We love what Helix has been able to do with a small wind turbine,” Pinter said.
The company also is looking to sell its turbines to residents and commercial buildings — and it is pushing them as a complement to solar panels. In many places, it's windier at night than during the day.
Helix, which was started in 2006 and traded over the counter since February, is not yet profitable.
It has produced about 150 of its signature turbines in a Thailand factory and sold them around the world.
Those turbines spin on a vertical axis and have the look of a soft-serve ice cream cone. While less efficient than models that look like airplane propellers, they are able to produce power in lighter, gustier and more erratic winds, said Mike Slattery, the company's chief design engineer.
Stimmel, with the wind association, said he has heard those claims from producers of vertical-axis wind turbines, but he is not sure they are true.
And, he said, it's important for buyers to make sure a small turbine makes sense in a particular location, recommending at least a year's worth of wind monitoring.
“I've seen a lot of poorly placed installations that produce 1 percent or less of what their output is expected to be,” Stimmel said.
Finding out how Helix's turbines compare with others is the goal of testing being done at the company's test facility, the yard of a house on a ridge near Boulevard, 70 miles east of downtown San Diego.
The wind wasn't blowing much on a recent afternoon as Slattery worked on the turbines.
A light breeze started one of the turbines spinning, it shook slightly as the blades pushed against the force of magnets in its generator, but it didn't get up to operating speed.
Efficiency is just one consideration, Slattery said.
“For people to have it in an open environment, it has to be quiet, and it has to look good,” he said.
Some 2,000 miles away, architect Kathleen O'Donnell is getting used to the turbine she had installed atop her riverfront home on Chicago's North Side.
“I can feel some vibrations,” O'Donnell said. “It shakes a little bit. Once it gets rolling, you can't really detect it, you have to go outside and look.”
The wind production fits in with other steps O'Donnell is taking to make the house energy-efficient, such as using a geothermal system for heating and cooling.
She's not sure how it will work out.
“I don't know how the winter's going to go,” O'Donnell said. “We'll see. It's a bold experiment.”
And because her goals were on energy independence and aesthetics, she's not looking too closely at how long it will take for lower utility bills to make up for the cost of the $7,500 turbine, plus its installation.
“It has other value to me,” O'Donnell said. “It's pretty.”