In the Palmyra Atoll, 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, a Minnesota company is changing the face of wind power.
The spectacular ring of coral reef and islands is home to a scientific research station and national wildlife refuge co-owned and run by The Nature Conservancy and The. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Three years ago, The Nature Conservancy embarked on a project designed to eliminate the need for the 21,000 gallons of diesel fuel shipped to the atoll each year to power its research stations, seeking renewable alternatives, its website says.
Given its tropical location, solar power was an obvious choice, with 385 panels installed over a six-week period in May – but it is its experimentation with wind power that is raising a few eyebrows in the middle of the Pacific.
The reason is because the atoll is known for its low-wind speeds and is home to more than a million nesting seabirds – and we all know how things go when birds meet with conventional wind turbines.
Step forward Chaska-based SheerWind, which has not only happened upon a prototype design that protects birds, but also proves far more efficient than regular wind turbines.
How does it work?
Called INVELOX, SheerWind has created a funnel-shaped turbine resembling an hourglass on its side, which extends 83-foot horizontally and is placed on the ground, rather than in the air (though some of SheerWind's other INVELOX designs are in the form of small towers – see video below).
The wind is "captured" through one end of the funnel and passes through a constricted "Venturi" section in the middle, where a turbine is located to generate the power, according to a Nature Conservancy press release.
The Venturi section is important, as this can increase the wind's speed by as much as six times as it passes through a smaller space, with KARE 11 reporting that the design can harvest energy from just 2 mph wind, compared to 8 mph needed to operate traditional turbines.
Nets over the intake section and enclosed blades meanwhile mean there is little risk of birds getting hit by the turbine.
The new normal?
Not only is it more efficient at generating wind, it's cheaper too, with SheerWind saying every unit of electricity it produces costs around 75 percent less than traditional turbines.
The first turbine has been installed in Palmyra, and there is room inside the Venturi section for two more. SheerWind hopes its innovative product could become the new normal for wind power.
"We are grateful for David Sellers and The Nature Conservancy's commitment to installing the first commercial system in an extremely challenging location. We are pleased we were able to contribute to this important achievement and hope this is an example to be duplicated globally," said Dr. Daryoush Allaei, SheerWind founder.
"With a goal to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, SheerWind's INVELOX was the only viable solution for the multiple restrictions including height, wind speeds, and of course bird populations." The Nature Conservancy's David Sellers said in the news release.
"This solution works and helped bring the goal to reduce fossil fuel use a reality."