We’re not sure, but it may soon be shaving some 15 percent off your electric bill.
By Michael F. Carmichael
May 21, 2009
We’ve all seen those giant three-bladed wind turbines, often clustered together on acreage on the great plains or along the seashore where a steady source of “real” wind blows at an average of 30 mph or more.
Now take that concept and put it on the roof of your home or small commercial building - only this time instead of a 12-foot-plus blade span think more in terms of a maximum of six feet in diameter and looking for all the world like an oversized version of the fan that you might have in your living room - and that can produce some 15 percent of your electrical energy needs using breezes blowing as slowly as six to 10 mph.
That’s the vision of a start-up company based in Muskegon, Mich. that this fall will be bringing their quiet wind turbines to market under the Honeywell brand name.
The start-up is called EarthTronics and Corp! talked to its president, Reg Adams. The company was started in 2007 and, according to Adams, “was founded on the principles of energy conservation, education and energy efficiency.” They launched their energy-efficient lighting products called “EarthBulb” in 2008 with a wide variety of compact fluorescent bulbs with some LED products coming out soon. “Along with that,” Adams continues, “we launched a program called the Green Ribbon project, where we’re planting trees with www.treesforthefuture.org to help reduce our carbon footprint. That’s part of the educational side.”
The wind turbine was launched just this year, says Adams. “That means we now have new alternative energy choices. The turbine was developed and the whole company started as an incubator in the Michigan Alternative Renewable Energy Center, it’s a Grand Valley State University unit.”
“We started working in the MAREC lab with the director of the facility, Dr. Imad Mahawili,” says Adams, “and Imad and I had come to the conclusion that his gearless technology for the new turbine was unique and marketable. We licensed the technology and put it into production. While we were getting off the ground we started talking with Honeywell. They had been doing a lot of investigation into wind and were discussing the technology with Imad.”
Adams continued, “Their respective engineering groups met many times together and Honeywell fell in love with the technology and we ended up with the Honeywell brand for the turbine worldwide. It made its debut recently at the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas as the Honeywell wind turbine. They’ll be selling it through their national distribution channels - such as ACE hardware stores throughout the countryside on a limited basis starting in October and then in a lot more areas by December of 2009.” It will also be sold by EarthTronics through its own distribution channels.
Given that many municipalities are uncertain about wind technology, Corp! asked if the new wind turbine would be acceptable to building codes everywhere? Adams replied, “Each municipality has its own building codes and rules so you have to check with your local municipality. We’ve worked with many of them already and have found almost an overwhelming response to wanting to be able to make it work, because the Honeywell model 6000 is only six feet across, so it’s not what people initially think of when they hear the words ‘wind turbine” - one of those monstrous wind farm machines that’s on a tall tower,” Adams noted. “For the power it produces, it doesn’t look out of place on a rooftop. There will be a learning curve for municipalities about zoning approval and various permits.”
Adams said that one of the ancillary benefits of the small wind turbines is the number of jobs installation of the machines will create. “Everyone’s fighting over jobs for the plant,” he says, “but the real opportunity here is the large number of people that will be required for installation, which will take from half to two-thirds of a day. In June we’re going to start training 500 installers a week. The National Electrical Contractors Association has offered to pay for their 44,000 members to come and take training at various locations throughout the country. It’s green jobs, and it’s putting people back to work at the same time.”
One of the things that has gotten a great deal of interest from contractors, municipalities and electrical utilities is the amount of wind needed to make the new turbine work. “It starts turning at a wind speed of only seven-tenths of a mile an hour and it starts generating power at just under two miles an hour,” explains Adams. “Ninety percent of America has an average wind speed of under nine miles an hour and most turbines don’t cut in until seven to ten miles an hour. We’re already operating fairly well as seven to eight miles an hour.”
What’s an optimum wind speed for the unit? “Between 10 and 12 miles an hour,” Adams says, “but it’s really about the kilowatts per hour that are generated. Many turbines are rated on the basis of maximum power generated at maximum wind speeds. The U.S. Department of Energy says that a speed of 30 miles per hour - the optimum for those giant turbines - only occurs seven-one-hundredths of the year in most of the United States.”
On the other hand, says Adams, “We’re looking at the ‘class four’ wind range, where the average speed is under nine miles an hour, which is what happens in most of the country. We’re very comfortable with our turbine functioning well between zero and 15 miles per hour. Obviously, it’ll do better at higher wind speeds, just like any other turbine. It’ll produce 1,522 kilowatt hours of electricity a year when the wind is blowing in the class four range, which is the majority of the country.”
Adams talked about the ‘smart’ energy transfer box, which takes the power generated by the turbine and meshes it with the electricity from the homeowner’s utility company in a seamless way.
“It’s a proprietary box that was also designed by Dr. Imad and our electrical engineers. The box comes complete with the turbine in the package that ACE will be selling for $4,500. It’s truly an intelligent box,” Adams continues. “It measures the output of the turbine and puts it either into a DC battery system or directly as alternating current into the homeowner’s electrical panel, depending on the home’s demand at the time. The battery acts just like a bucket, because when we produce power at such low wind speeds we want to save every watt possible. As the bucket fills up the smart box then feeds it into the electrical panel.”
Adams explains that the battery stores up enough power to run your home when there’s a momentary, or somewhat extended, interruption from the utility. “The standard car battery is worth a kilowatt of power for an hour,” he continues, “that’s comparable to what our battery will do - run basic lights for about an hour. You can get four batteries and run most of the house for about four hours if there’s a total electrical failure, even if there’s no wind. That’s kind of a bonus that’s been built into the intelligence of the smart box.”
The smart box will eventually be able to tell you not only about the energy you’re producing, but where you’re using excessive energy. You’ll be able to monitor that in your home or from your office or other location, perhaps even via an iPhone app,” he laughs.
The EarthBulbs and the turbine are not all that’re on EarthTronics’ plate. Looking into the near future, Adams tells us that “in 2010 we’ll launch the ‘solar system’ - a photovoltaic electrical generating system - and the smart box will be able to tap into that as well.”
Sometimes, Adams points out, one turbine is not enough. “We’re also applying that same solution to small commercial buildings,” he says. “With a commercial building, or a rural home for that matter, you could link up to four of the turbines together. The smart box will handle two at the moment and by December will handle four.”
There is a lot of promise about homeowners and small commercial companies being able to sell any excess electricity back to their utility company. Can the Honeywell system do that, Adams is asked. “Not at the moment,” Adams says, “but Dr. Imad has developed has built the intelligence into the smart box that will allow us to add another panel that’s customized to the specific requirements of the utility involved. In the case of PG&E in California,” he continues, “they’ll supply the additional box free for what is called net metering - selling excess power back to them. We hook into that and send power back to their grid.”
Because of differences in utilities across the country, EarthTronics did not include the sell-back component in phase one. “We simply created a closed-loop system that will add complementary power to a home or small commercial building this year and save them on their electricity bill.” Adams then explained the process further. “The smart box knows when to shift between turbine-generated power and utility-provided power - just like my hybrid car shifts from gasoline to electricity and back again as needed. It senses energy generation and demand and it will put the appropriate source to satisfy the need.”
The energy savings numbers are impressive, even today. “When the EarthBulbs are installed along with the turbine, that will reduce about 34 percent of the energy needs of the average American home,” Adams claims. “When the solar system is added in 2010 that will cover about 55 percent of the average home’s needs. That’s our target of a home energy solution.”
“Additionally,” Adams reminds us, “whether residential or commercial, there’s the 30 percent tax federal credit. That’s on top of whatever state rebate or utility rebate might be available at the local level.” There’s a certain amount of self-interest on the part of the utilities. “They have to meet certain carbon reduction standards,” Adams says, “and this is a very economical way to incentivize their customers to do the right thing without having to make hundreds of millions of dollars in investments in wind farms or coal-fired generating plants. Our goal is to bring electrical generation direct to the demand area and take the pressure off the grid. The number of calls we’ve had from utilities has been 10 times what it was last year. It’s really coming alive and we’re quite excited about it.”
People around the large turbines complain that they’re noisy, even though it may be low frequency noise, saying it’s annoying. What about the Honeywell turbine, Adams is asked. “We’ll be releasing the actual figures after we have achieved our Underwriters Laboratory seal, but we like to say that we’re ‘whisper quiet.'”
EarthTronics believes strongly in the sustainability message. They’ve recently moved into a LEED-certified building. “We’re committed to a Go Green Michigan concept which we’re kicking it off at the Rothbury Festival [an environmentally-conscious post-Woodstock event held not far from Muskegon over the July 4th holiday and featuring entertainers at the level of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson]. We’re donating some turbines which will be put on the roofs of schools in the area. We’d love to see one on the roof of every school in the country, and one in the classroom as well.”
“The kids are the future,” continues Adams, “they’re the ones who’ll make the real difference here. If they can understand the part technology can play in their future and become aware of what needs to be done and how it will work, they’ll come up with the new technologies that will improve the efficiencies of what we’re doing right now,” Adams points out, “Honeywell has a real interest in a national program that’s similar, and one of their fastest-growing business segments focuses on sustainability.”
“The timing is good,” he says.