Breaking new wind

An expert in the aeronautics industry during World War 2 probably could be forgiven if they believed that fighters such as the P-51 Mustang or an RAF Spitfire were close to being the fastest and most advanced planes technologically possible. That is, until the Luftwaffe introduced the world to the jet engine turbine system. Similarly for Wind Energy- how else can the basic 3 blade turbine be engineered to improve on cost and performance? Isn’t there only so much you can do to a technology that is relatively basic?

Well- much like the WW2 Fighter plane analogy- wind energy is now entering the jet engine age.  Welcome FloDesign Wind Turbine. The Massachusetts based start up firm has recently emerged onto the public eye with their patented technology that allegedly is 3-4 times more efficient than traditional wind turbines. See informational video here:

Traditional blades tend to push wind away and cause a complex turbulence condition- which consequently demands strict attention to the layout of any wind farm. Alternatively, the FloDesign wind turbine uses a shroud around the turbine blades to funnel wind into the turbine. See above video for best explanation and illustration.

Wind Cost Curve (cents/kWH) from NREL

The cost curve to the right shows why this technology is such a disruptive technology. Clearly advancements in wind energy are improving yet at a decreasing rate (a negative double derivative). Thus- the jump to jet engine design turbines could push wind costs in cents/kWH down much further than anticipated by most experts analyzing traditional wind. What this implies is wind energy that is competitive or cheaper than fossil fuels in many more locations than previously available.

On the business side, FloDesign recently secured $34.5MM of funding from investors led by Kleiner Perkins and joined by Technology Partners and VantagePoint Venture Partners. Additionally, Lars Andersen, former President of Vestas China, signed on as CEO. The funding is intended to begin commercial production of the turbines. IPO in 3-4 years?

FloDesign Turbine, Courtesy Mass. Clean Energy Center

Ok so what is the Achilles heel of the FloDesign? It’s ugly! (Zoning challenges) Personally I find traditional wind turbines to be beautiful- especially when you consider it is providing clean and renewable energy and replacing a fossil fuel generator. Fans of wind energy realize not every land owner shares these views and some find the light humming noise and gentle roll of the blades to be very unsightly. Well- if folks object to a beautiful, white, 3-bladed turbine- how would they ever accept essentially a jet engine hanging out by itself somewhere? Somehow I am skeptical the FloDesign turbine could dot the countryside and farming communities as well as a giant 1.5MW turbine. Perhaps the FloDesign turbine could find greater acceptance in industrial zones atop existing buildings or nearby towers. Or, maybe FloDesign will design a more aesthetically appealing cover that does not affect turbine performance.   Debates on appearance aside- the company truly has a remarkable, ground breaking technology which no doubt will help foster a giant leap forward for the wind sector.

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5 comments

  1. Steve Pipkin · April 18, 2010

    Its ugly? Architect Louis Sullivan famously said, “form follows function”

    Perhaps the market penetration of Flodesign’s turbines will be determined by their cost of production of electricity.

    Always follow the money.

  2. bob aikins · April 20, 2010

    The achilles heel of Flodesign is not that it is ugly. It is that this was already tried by Grumman Aerospace (they and NREL spent millions and 10 years trying to make it work) and failed. Tried by Vortec NZ and failed ($7 million). “Debates on appearance aside- the company truly has a remarkable, ground breaking technology which no doubt will help foster a giant leap forward for the wind sector.” – not by a long shot. Enflo’s machine actually works better. The only new thing about Flodesign is the idea that a lobed diffuser, that is used for noise suppression in subsonic jets, will somehow make this idea work despite the fact that there is not a single piece of empirical evidence to that effect. One other note is anyone looking at this tech might want to look up Van Bussel’s (Delft) paper which notes that these type of machines (DAWT’s despite whatever acronym they want to make up to pretend it’s different) are not compared on an appropriate basis and when compared, or referred to exit area, they do not improve HAWT power performance. Flodesign’s own AIAA note only predicts a maximum velocity increase of 1.8 times which given their machine that was pictured with Gov. Patrick means they are actually producing less than a HAWT the diameter of their exit.

    Now another 40 million to find out that the designers do not even know how to analyze their own machine properly. Let’s hope they get to an IPO before anyone else realizes

    Segway anyone? Wasn’t this the same VC that claimed “IT” would change the way cities were built?

  3. brettalan · April 20, 2010

    Steve- I agree with you but my experience has shown we sometimes have to bow to the lowest common denominators..if local NIMBYs become a habit and use aesthetics as their war cry- it is a real issue.

    Bob- You may be right, but from our perspective we can only use company claims and available research. If we were investing real money we would certainly take this several steps further. Devil’s advocate however- history has shown that at times even an inferior technology can win out if coupled with a superior marketing machine. FloDesign’s financial backers and management team do appear to be top notch- and that does matter.

    • bob aikins · April 21, 2010

      brettalan – research is available (The Science of Making More Torque from Wind: Diffuser Experiments and Theory Revisited, G.J.W. van Bussel, Delft, 2007) (http://repository.tudelft.nl/view/ir/uuid%3A2f19000e-f2b5-468e-8d10-5e338e1be888/) Grumman’s research is available. A search on ducted wind turbines brings most papers, positive and negative, up within the first 30 links.

      Do not have to take company claims at face value. This type of thing is bad for innovation in the market in general. If Flodesgn fails money for similar technologies that might actually work will dry up.

      With consumer products, agreed marketing will win out, but with the 99% of the wind energy market that is power producers it is all about the capital cost and the busbar price. If after the first few installations the IPP’s are making less money with a Flodesign turbine than with the HAWT’s, no marketing budget in the world is going to get the producers to buy it.

      And thereby innovation is stifled on two fronts because no one likes to be burned twice when there is a nice safe option the government will help them pay for.

      If companies like Flodesign are not held to some degree of accuracy in their claims (talking about basic logic and science) then it will hurt everyone’s desire to advance both business and technology.

      • brettalan · April 21, 2010

        Bob-

        We actually agree on much of this. If you look at the second paragraph, I am careful to use the word “allegedly” when quoting a company claim. I am not making an investment recommendation, but instead introducing a high profile wind investment from the most well known VC firm in the world.

        Before any money were to change hands, there definitely is a much higher level of due diligence required.

        Re: your other point, my devil’s advocate point probably should not have used the word marketing- but more so financial backing, infrastructure, connections etc. VHS was inferior to Beta technically- but it was the supply chain, coupled with marketing that helped it to win out. If the technical flaws were significant enough- of course a well greased firm would still not win out.

        Regardless- the higher profile nature of FloDesign, in my opinion, will help encourage a closer look by other private firms as well as researchers in the industry to innovate turbine designs in less conventional manners. And if you’re right about the inferior design, which you may very well be, and a better turbine based design out-competes Flo-Design, I believe an economist named Schumpeter had a theory about this.

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