Architectural Turbines To Harness Building Wind Power
Big wind energy is booming in our energy-expensive economy. Fields of ever more giant turbines—funded by corporate majors like General Electric and British Petroleum—are going up from Cape Cod to Oahu and from Canada to Texas.
But it took AeroVironment, the cutting edge Monrovia, CA, firm founded by Paul MacCready (Discover Magazine’s Engineer-of-the-Twentieth-Century for his achievements in human powered flight and solar powered cars), to design a mini-turbine with a "secret sauce" and find the "sweet spot" on the building.
Tom Zambrano joined AeroVironment during the 70s oil crises, fresh from academic training in the complex areas of fluid and wind dynamics. He consulted with Southern California Edison on its early wind projects. In those days the U.S. Department of Energy viewed wind energy as monolithic 2 to 5 megawatt machines with 200 foot towers and 200 foot rotors. Zambrano observed the Edison projects fail while European experiments with smaller, more efficient machines (65 foot towers with 20 ft rotors) were succeeding. Eventually, Zambrano and AeroVironment were instrumental in the success of Edison’s huge turbine field in the San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs, CA.
Many years later, AeroVironment developed a breakthrough fast-charging battery technology called PosiCharge. It allows companies running fleets of battery-powered forklifts to recharge their workhorses in minutes rather than hours, dramatically improving productivity. This charging technology puts some extra burden on a building’s power system. AeroVironment Marketing Director Bruce Pfander raised the possibility with Zambrano, by this time in A-V’s research and development division, of including some form of supplemental renewable energy with the PosiCharge installation.
Intrigued, A-V research and development wizards Zambrano, Tyler MacCready and Stel Walker "did some experiments" and "wrote some patents" Zambrano said. They started thinking about green buildings, which they knew were both pleasing and productive. Los Angeles philanthropist Ed Roski, Jr., learned of the concept and his Majestic Realty Vice President Dennis Daze offered what eventually became the Pioneer Electronics building in Long Beach, CA, to experiment on. This would be AeroVironment’s proof-of-concept. The Zambrano-MacCready-Walker team had a lot of questions: How much noise would such a system make? How much would people tolerate? How would people in the building feel about the turbines? What would happen at night?
During this process, they developed rotor blades that were especially quiet and especially effective in sea breeze-like wind conditions, as opposed to the higher wind conditions of places like the San Gorgonio Pass. They also started understanding things like how business managers and local bird communities would react to the mini-turbines. And they started thinking about different weather and wind environments. "The sea breeze in Long Beach comes up every afternoon" Zambrano said. "But not everywhere. It’s not like Arizona up in Wisconsin."
They found few drawbacks and a lot of approval. People loved the turbines. "It makes the building come alive" Zambrano said. They were thinking of something like a track lighting system, so the installation became a long track of mini-turbines along a building's windward wall on structural segments, doing no harm to the roof itself. They were determined to create something effective in mild winds so the mini-turbine installation generates energy comparable to a solar installation in winds as low as 14 mph, with a competitive return on investment.
After commercialization review, A-V shifted the responsibility for Architectural Wind to Project Manager Paul Glenney. Glenney’s team took Architectural Wind through a vigorous beta testing process and perfected it. Working with Zambrano, Glenney’s team found the ideal placement for the mini-turbines (on the building's "sweet spot") to maximize efficiency. Glenney calls this the "secret sauce" the reason Architectural Wind generates valuable non-carbon energy and pays for itself in a reasonable time frame.
Zambrano is excited about Architectural Wind’s possibilities in any region or weather condition. AeroVironment plans to market the concept in New England and Europe. Zambrano said that Architectural Wind can be effective on any building except where there are a lot of other buildings very near or where there is a building twice as high just upwind.
Like Glenney, Zambrano is enthusiastic about how green buildings reduce absenteeism and increase productivity. Along with many veteran experts in renewable energy, Zambrano thinks we are at or near the tipping point where green energy considerations and green architectural thinking become fundamental to construction. "Five years from now an owner will consider the wind and the sun."
Regarding special considerations for avian safety built into Architectural Wind, Zambrano remembers attention given to the issue in the 80s by Southern California Edison. He joked that at one time he thought he would have done better by becoming an Ornithologist. "Basically, Edison was willing to kill performance rather than kill birds" he said. But they realized the main problem was in the tower, not the blades. The early lattice tower design made it an attractive nesting place for birds. The lattice tower was not used in the San Gorgonio Pass and there have been no major bird death problems there.
When Dr. Trabish isn't caring for patients, he's blogging on energy at http://newenergynews.blogspot.com/.
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