Rethinking Wind Power

by Nick Peterson, MBA ’15 (10/18/13)

Nick Peterson, MBA ’15

Using jet-engine technology to speed up wind turbines may revolutionize distributed energy.

Valerie Feldmann, Senior Director of Operations at FloDesign Wind Turbines, visited Sage Hall to discuss the innovative approach that her company is taking to wind turbine design as well as her experience in a startup organization.

Because of their design and what is known as Betz’ Law, which states that no turbine can capture more than 59.3% of the kinetic energy in wind, typical wind turbines are limited in the amount of energy they can capture. FloDesign was started in 2007 by two former jet-engine engineers who came up with a new design that would surpass that limit. Beginning with computer models and simulations of a jet-engine inspired wind turbine, they eventually graduated to small-scale wind tunnel testing and finally to the two full-size prototypes that they have in operation today. Throughout this process they have received three rounds of funding from investors as well as various awards (including the MIT Clean Energy Prize) and a grant from ARPA-E, a government agency that funds research and development of energy technologies.

It is immediately evident where the jet engine technology comes into play, when you notice the massive shroud encapsulating the blades of the turbine. It’s the shroud that transforms the device from a typical tower with three propeller-like blades at the top into something that looks more like a giant Dyson-brand fan with blades in the center. Feldmann explained that the shroud acts as a pump that sucks air into the device and doubles the wind speed before it meets the blades, making the turbine more efficient. That is not to say that the FloDesign turbine is more powerful than the typical wind turbine; it is intentionally smaller both in height and rotor diameter by a wide margin, and therefore generates less electricity than a typical turbine (about 100 kilowatts versus 2,000 kilowatts). These differences actually allow the company to attack a separate and currently untapped market in wind energy: distributed energy.

Distributed energy is electricity that is produced relatively near the end-user. The most common form of distributed energy is solar panels that you can find on top of many homes. Residential solar power systems, however, only produce about 5 kilowatts of electricity on average[1], while the FloDesign wind turbine generates about 100 kilowatts of electricity. Because of this difference in scale, FloDesign is looking to use their turbines to provide electricity at the community-level.

Feldmann also provided some insight into her experience at a small startup organization. She explained that there are three main benefits to working for a small company. First, your work matters. Because small organizations have limited resources, everything you work on is valuable and can have significant impact. Second the small scale allows you to become closer to decision making and have influence over the direction of the organization without being in a c-level position. Third, your experience is accelerated beyond what you would get at a larger organization, where your focus might be narrower. Feldmann also gave some advice for those looking to find a small company to work for, stating that you shouldn’t focus on the project, but rather focus on the team. Just make sure that you have the stomach to handle the uncertainty of a small company’s future.

FloDesign is currently working on building a new prototype that will integrate the learnings from the previous two prototypes, which is expected to be operational this year. The company is also planning on shipping its first commercial products late this year. Expect to see FloDesign to continue to push the boundaries of wind turbine technology and make a significant impact on the energy industry.