Palm Springs cowboy tests new wind energy technology

Source: By Sammy Roth, The Desert Sun • Posted: Monday, June 1, 2015

If Johann Steinlechner had his way, you wouldn’t see the Coachella Valley’s iconic wind turbines as you drove through the San Gorgonio Pass.

The turbines would still be there, generating renewable energy. They’d just be a lot closer to the ground.

Steinlechner wears a big cowboy hat — and laughs a big cowboy laugh — but he’s working on technology that his Western forebears never could have imagined. The longtime Palm Springs resident has designed a new kind of turbine that he says could make wind energy profitable at much lower speeds than is currently possible, opening up vast new areas to potential clean energy development.

The horizontal, energy-generating disks envisioned by Steinlechner would be mounted just 30 to 40 feet off the ground, as opposed to the hundreds of feet reached by modern wind turbines. That could make maintenance a whole lot easier. It could also substantially lower the risk of bird deaths — a sticking point for many environmental groups — and placate those who see wind turbines as a visual blight on picturesque landscapes.

“There’s a perspective that a wind turbine needs to have 40-mile-per-hour wind to make money,” Steinlechner said. “We’re trying to prove we can make money at 10 mph.”

Steinlechner’s proposal is more than a pipe dream. Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory — a federally funded research center in New Mexico — have been evaluating computer models of his designs for more than two years, using data from a small prototype near Palm Springs. The researchers are now building a larger, one-megawatt prototype in Melrose, New Mexico. They plan to run comprehensive tests this summer.

Steinlechner is far from the first entrepreneur to take a swing at so-called “vertical-axis wind turbines.”

The federal government invested heavily in research in the 1980s, and many companies tried and failed to make the technology work on a large scale. Vertical-axis turbines suffered from a long list of problems, including high costs, low efficiency and tricky engineering that was nearly impossible to get right.

But just because vertical-axis wind energy never took off doesn’t mean the concept is unworkable, some experts say. It just means nobody has made it work yet.

“It’s one of those ideas that’s not crazy. And you see plenty of crazy ideas in the wind industry,” said James Manwell, director of the Wind Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts. “But it’s kind of down in the weeds: Can you actually get it to work?”

Steinlechner thinks he can.

Despite his cowboy persona, Steinlechner didn’t grow up in the American West. Born in Austria’s mountainous Tyrol region, the self-described “Austrian hillbilly” moved to Palm Springs in 1984. For years, he sold real estate, during which time the cowboy hat became his “trademark.”

“Everyone remembers the cowboy hat,” Steinlechner said in his thick Austrian accent. “Steve McQueen told me — it was in 1979, on a boat down there at a Christmas party — he said, ‘Hans, don’t worry about it, in this country, just wear a cowboy hat and you’ll have no problems.’ And he was right.”

Steinlechner isn’t joking about Steve McQueen. He said the off-road motorcyclist Malcolm Smith, who starred alongside McQueen in the 1971 documentary, “On Any Sunday,” invited him to a Long Beach boat party attended by the legendary actor.

“I hardly spoke any English,” Steinlechner said.

The idea for a new kind of wind technology struck Steinlechner while he was working in the motocross industry, racing off-road motorcycles and designing improvements for two-stroke engines. The air-flow mechanics of internal combustion engines, he said, have a lot in common with the mechanics of wind turbines.

Steinlechner didn’t know much about renewable energy when he started designing vertical-axis wind turbines more than a decade ago, but he now sees the work as a noble pursuit. His goal, he said, is to help wean the world off oil.

“We have to do something before we hit the bucket. I want to make sure the world has something to live on, and clean everything up,” he said.

Not everyone sees a viable future for vertical-axis wind technology. In a blistering article at the news website CleanTechnica last year, wind energy expert Mike Barnard argued that vertical-axis turbines “are undeserving of any significant attention, are an inferior technology and definitely aren’t new.”

“People perpetually reinvent them and believe that they have found something new and exciting,” Barnard wrote. “Outside of a couple of niches, they are more of a distraction from deployment of effective utility-scale, horizontal axis wind turbines.”

Even some of the technology’s longstanding supporters know they might be fighting a losing battle.

Paul Veers, chief engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s National Wind Technology Center, led extensive research into vertical-axis wind turbines while working at Sandia National Laboratories in the 1980s. He still believes the technology is viable, but he’s quick to acknowledge its “inherent disadvantages.”

“I’m always optimistic that people can solve the design problems, and come up with something that’s competitive,” he said. “I’m probably the only person at the (National Wind Technology Center) who thinks that, but that’s because I’ve worked on it.”

The biggest challenge facing vertical-axis entrepreneurs today, Veers said, is that traditional wind turbines have gotten so cheap over several decades of rampant development. The question now, he said, is whether the nascent technology can possibly compete against fifth-generation horizontal-axis turbines.

The scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory think that’s a possibility.

With funding from the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program — which supports Steinlechner’s company, Heppolt Wind LLC — eight staff members at Los Alamos are working to make Steinlechner’s idea cost-effective. They’ll soon launch a one-megawatt, 50-foot-diameter prototype in Melrose, then spend several months running tests.

By October, they should have all the data they need to evaluate the design’s viability. Loren Toole, a senior engineer at Los Alamos and one of the project’s principal investigators, said they’ll publish whatever they find, writing a report that Steinlechner can use for marketing purposes if the tests are successful.

After more than two years of working on the technology, Toole is clearly optimistic. He described several design features that he believes could help the project succeed where past efforts have failed, predicting that Steinlechner’s turbines could ultimately convert wind to electricity more efficiently than traditional turbines.

The technology’s greatest benefit, Toole said, would be to capture the “huge untapped potential” of winds under 10 mph. The machines could be placed on top of buildings in urban areas, and in other locations that don’t have wind resources as strong as those in the San Gorgonio Pass — if the tests go well, and if Steinlechner can bring the technology from development to large-scale production.

“Most of this is still theory,” Toole said. “We haven’t actually proven it with field data yet.”

For Steinlechner, the results of the Los Alamos tests are a foregone conclusion. He has no doubt his invention will be shown to work, and that interest from businesses will follow.

“It’s exciting times,” Steinlechner said, before slowing down and striking a reflective note. “The exciting time is always before it’s happening. After that?”

He shrugged. “OK, it works.”