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Jet-engine inspired FloDesign boosts wind turbine output

Wind turbine start-up is seeking funding to build prototypes of a turbine that its says is cheaper than traditional turbines and can be used for more distributed applications.

BOSTON--Start-up FloDesign Wind, one of a number of companies looking to shake up the wind turbine business, said a prototype of its jet engine-inspired turbine was three times more efficient at converting wind to usable energy than traditional designs.

The Massachusetts-based company is seeking to raise a series B round of $25 million later this year to deploy and test the real-life performance of its 150-kilowatt turbines, said CEO Stanley Kowalski III at the Cleantech Forum conference here on Thursday.

FloDesign Wind last year was spun out of aerospace engineering company FloDesign, which has supplied components used in military helicopters and fighter planes. Using its expertise in aerodynamics, the company is developing a wind turbine that more resembles a jet engine than a typical three-blade turbine.

Its plan is to develop relatively small turbines and market them for use by businesses, communities, or wind farm developers. The company is now testing prototypes, a process that will take at least a year, Kowalski indicated.

"I think it's exciting that there's an oligopoly (among wind turbine suppliers)," he said during a panel on Thursday. "There is a resistance to change and that's how things disrupt and we hope to be one of the disruptors."

Utility-scale wind farms typically use giant wind turbines capable of turning out one or two megawatts of electricity--enough to supply hundreds of homes. By contrast, FloDesign wind--along with a other wind challengers--is developing its turbine for use in locations not well suited for large turbines, such as mountain ridge lines, or to customers that want to make power on site, such as municipalities or businesses, Kowalski said.

FloDesign Wind estimates that it can produce power at about 40 percent cheaper than traditional turbines, although the performance depends on the location. Part of the lower cost is from being able to extract more usable energy from the available wind--the company tested a prototype of its turbine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this year and found that it delivered a three times improvement over traditional designs, Kowalski said.

The turbine is built around a fan and a shroud that surrounds it. It's designed so that air passes through the fan blades and around the edges of the shroud. This creates a mix of two air speeds at the back of the unit, with fast air going around the edges of the shroud and slow air passing through the blades. When the two air flows meet, the rapid mixing causes air to be pulled through the turbine, Kowalski explained. The electricity is generated at the tips of blades rather than using a gear box.

The product, which has a 60-foot diameter, is being made so that it can be transported onto a standard truck bed, which should make installation cheaper and easier than large turbines. The company expects that it will be less dangerous to birds and bats because it will be easier to see, Kowalski said. He said it should be quieter than traditional turbines as well.

Taking on incumbents
FloDesign Wind is among a number of start-up wind companies trying to crack into the wind market by introducing different product designs and by targeting different customers than the large suppliers, such as Siemens, Vestas, and GE, which sell to large-scale wind farm developers.

Incumbents have made turbines larger and larger over the years to generate more power from an existing location and bring down the cost of delivered electricity. There have been attempts to make mid-size turbines big enough to supply a school or community using the traditional three-blade wind turbine design. But there have been technical problems and those projects which typically have a higher cost per kilowatt to install, according to a report from the National Renewable Energy published last year.

New companies, however, are entering the mid-size turbine field, including FloDesign Wind, OptiWind, and BroadStar Wind Systems. Developers envision that the machines could be deployed in existing wind farms among larger turbines, at a big-box stores, or for locations where there isn't enough land available.

"For the first time, we can build a turbine that can compete on price with big turbines at small scale--it's like the PC versus the mainframe," said Kowalski.

A more distributed model of wind generation addresses one of the biggest problems today in wind: having the transmission lines to bring megawatts worth of electricity to places where it is consumed. T. Boone Pickens, for example, had to delay its planned wind farm in Texas because a lack of transmission.

With its second round of funding, FloDesign Wind is seeking partnerships to help bring the product to market, Kowalski said. The company raised a series A round of $6 million from Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers and is hoping to close its second round by the end of the year. It has also received funding from the Department of Energy.

The company has already gotten interest from at least one utility to use its turbine, Kowalski said, although he also said that he expects utilities overall will be slower to adopt new wind technologies.