November 1, 2010 | last updated May 29, 2012 11:15 pm

CT's Hunt For Wind Power Turns Exotic

With low wind speeds and high congestion, the secret to Connecticut unlocking the power of wind may lie in non-traditional, exotic turbines designed for on-site generation.

In October, Connecticut renewable energy start-up Optiwind finished installation of its first 150-kilowatt turbine designed to maximize the power harnessed from the wind at its Torrington location on Krug Farm.

Rather than utilize the traditional three-blades-on-a-pole design, the Optiwind turbine has six fans placed on either side of a steel cylinder — similar to a silo — all mounted on a steel tower 200 feet tall. The company calls it a compact wind acceleration turbine, offering a more powerful alternative to other on-site turbines.

"You will be able to install the wind turbine and still get a return on your investment," said David Hurwitt, Optiwind vice president of marketing and business development.

The Optiwind turbine is one of only a handful of turbines of any design placed throughout Connecticut, a state with notoriously slow wind speeds. The few areas that have anything but 'poor' rated wind speeds — the northeast corner of the state and some coastal areas — only have 'marginal' wind speeds at 12-14 mph, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy operation.

As opposed to state such as Texas with wide open spaces where wind farms could be placed out of sight and therefore out of mind of any neighbors, Connecticut is one of the most densely populated states in the nation, with its 703 people per square mile nearly 10 times the national average. Even if technology was improved to greatly harness Connecticut's low wind speeds, the wind turbines would certainly impact the neighbors.

With little opportunity in Connecticut to pursue large-scale wind projects that could function as power plant substitutes, companies such as Optiwind are pursuing the on-site generation market. Similar to solar photovoltaic panels placed on roofs of houses, on-site wind turbines are small in scale and produce power solely for the property where it is located, helping the owners offset their electricity costs.

Since on-site turbines tend to be scaled down versions of larger three-blade turbines and expensive to install — requiring a crane — the industry is ripe with experimentation by companies such as Optiwind. They're all designing alternatives suited for congested areas with low wind speeds where nearby residents don't appreciate the loud whoosh of spinning blades.

"Homeowners and business owners are looking for ways to increase their green energy use," said Rich Hasselman, an expert on exotic turbines from Wisconsin's Focus on Energy. "The market has interest, so people are prone to experimentation."

In September, Quinnipiac opened its York Hill campus that included 25 vertical axis wind turbines producing 32,000 kilowatts of electricity each year. The turbines, produced by Nevada-based Mariah Power, appear to be little more than 45-foot-tall poles that spin almost silently.

Last year, the Nature Conservancy and the Aquarion Water Company installed a different type of vertical axis wind turbine at Aquarion's Easton facility where the organizations are conducting a project to help eels migrate downstream. The turbine — designed by Tangarie Alternative Power in Texas — looks like a piece of twisted metal spinning in the breeze.

To make their turbines more user friendly for urban environments, Tangarie will paint the turbine in various designs that range from the American flag to advertisements.

"When the customer first places an order, aesthetics is not the reason why; but that becomes a top priority for them when they find out that it's possible," said Debe Besold, CEO of Tangarie.

In its second year of operation, Besold said Tangarie's sales have tripled over year one. The company has produced more than 70 of its vertical axis turbines.

As the market grows for these exotic turbines, Hasselman said more people will be tinkering with the designs and coming up with new alternative methods of collecting wind. Since onsite turbines are smaller than those destined for wind farms, it's easier to experiment with unique designs.

"Wind seems to capture people's imagination in a way that solar does not," Hasselman said.

Optiwind went with the fans-on-either-side-of-a-silo design because the company believes the wind will speed up as it blows around the silo, further spinning the fans, Hurwitt said. This enables the turbine to be used in areas with wind speeds as low as 12 mph.

The Torrington company will install a more powerful 300-kilowatt turbine of a similar design on the University of Connecticut Torrington campus, hopefully providing enough power to cover all the small campus' electricity needs.

Once the company completes data collection on the two turbines, it plans to launch commercially in 2012.

Because the Optiwind turbine is placed on a steel tower instead of a pole, it can be raised with hydraulics instead of a crane, saving money on installation.

The Optiwind turbine is more expensive than a traditional onsite turbine, but it produces more power. The 300-kilowatt Optiwind turbine costs $750,000 to buy and install, compared to the $500,000 cost of the 100-kilowatt turbine at the Phoenix Press in New Haven — Connecticut's most prominent wind turbine.

Hurwitt said because the Optiwind turbine costs $2.50 per kilowatt compared to $5 per kilowatt for a traditional turbine, the breakeven point — the point where the customers earns all the upfront costs back through energy savings — will come much sooner, especially in Connecticut whose 17.44 cents per kilowatt hour electricity price is the third highest in the nation.

By those numbers, the Optiwind turbine would hit the breakeven point in nine years, compared to 18 years for a traditional 100-kilowatt turbine, although the exact breakeven point depends on pricing and the performance of the turbine.

Unlike other renewable projects, Optiwind aims to develop turbines that don't need state and federal incentives to be financially feasible.

"That is a tough business model where you need governments to pay for half of it to make it economical," Hurwitt said.

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