A Tale of Two Turbines and Eiffel’s Tower

By Paul Gipe

By now everyone has seen the fawning news accounts—several times, no doubt—that a US company has installed two wind turbines inside—yes, inside—the Eiffel Tower.

I was hoping my French colleague Bernard Chabot would have a witty rejoinder about the efficacy of such a venture. After all, it was Chabot who got me a speaking gig in Paris at the Maison de l’Air, directly below two “innovative” wind turbines mounted on the building’s roof. Alas, Chabot is busy analyzing the production from real wind turbines generating real amounts of electricity, and doesn’t have time to critique whimsies such as this.

My colleagues here in North America bombarded me with emails to the effect of “not again, not another round of articles about sexy vertical-axis wind turbines mounted on buildings.”

Mais oui. It’s happened again. And it will happen again and again, until countries such as France–and notably the city of Paris–adopt serious policies to develop renewable energy. Until then, politicians will be able to hide behind flagrant greenwashing like this.

To recap, Urban Green Energy (UGE) has installed two small vertical-axis wind turbines inside the Eiffel Tower at the request of the city of Paris, as part of the city’s climate plan. (Search for the term Eiffel Tower Wind Turbine on Google and you’ll get 73,000 hits. You have to give them that. These folks know how to get press.)

For those who don’t know, Paris will be the host of COP 21, the United Nations climate change conference, this fall. Parisian politicians say that they want to show the world how to address climate change.

Unfortunately, what Paris has shown the world is that it doesn’t have a clue as to what it takes to tackle climate change. Local politicians demonstrated that they know absolutely nothing about renewable energy, especially wind energy. And in a country renowned for such great engineers as Gustave Eiffel and Georges Darrieus, they’ve demonstrated they can’t learn from their mistakes.

It’s as if Parisian politicians had said, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” (“Let them eat cake.”) It’s all for show anyway, the paysans (the peasants) won’t know the difference. We’ll look good and we won’t have to do anything requiring serious effort at transforming our economy—or our cityscape. Mon dieu. We don’t want to put real wind turbines within the city, as they do across the Rhine in Germany.

This is the same city of Paris that gave us not one, but two, ducted wind turbines on the Maison de l’Air in 2010. (I am using the term wind turbine loosely here as the “devices” were more architectural bling than they were machines designed to generate electricity.) See Elena Diffuser-Augmented Wind Turbine (DAWT)  for the embarrassing story. Like the current Eiffel Tower flap, this concerned twin turbines. Maybe it’s the symmetry that’s appealing: Two of this, two of that. It’s certainly not the successful generation of electricity.

France has a problem with renewable energy. It’s called nuclear power. Once the nuclear establishment saw how fast wind and solar were growing in France, they called on their political allies in the Assemblée nationale to put the brakes on—and they did.

There’s only 19 MW of wind energy in the entire département of Ile de France, where Paris is located. That’s equivalent to ten modern wind turbines. That’s all!

Parisian politicians should have spent their time and political capital doing something about that abysmal record, instead of chasing after chimerical visions of rooftop wind turbines.

UGE—Still Not Certified

Oh, those UGE turbines–what about them?

On 7 March 2014 UGE announced that it had completed third-party testing of its wind turbine, “culminating in a certified power curve for its VisionAir wind turbine.”

I’ve previously analyzed the claims in this press release and put them in perspective. See Poor Comparison Between Small VAWT and Small HAWT: UGE’s VisionAIR Pushing the Limits. . . of Hype.

Granted, most small VAWTs, helical or otherwise, have never completed any kind of testing. The fact that UGE has, is an accomplishment not to be denied. However, the tests were part of a process of “certifying” the turbine as to its performance and design characteristics. This is a necessary step in order for the consumer, whether it’s the city of Paris or a farmer in the US, to have a reasonable expectation that the turbine will do what the manufacturer says it will do. This is the minimum any reputable manufacturer should do.

Four years after UGE signed a contract with the Intertek testing laboratory for certification, the company’s application is listed as still “pending”.

It’s been one year since the company announced–with much fanfare–that certification was imminent, but no UGE turbine has been certified by Intertek, or any other certification organization anywhere.

On 26 February 2015 UGE’s application for certification with the Small Wind Certification Council in the US was declared inactive.

UGE’s turbines are not certified.

Under current Internal Revenue Service rules, no UGE turbine will qualify for US federal tax subsidies.

This may not mean much to a Parisian politician. If your objective is greenwashing, you don’t really need to know whether the wind turbine works as claimed—as long as it keeps going around.

Contrast UGE’s claims with those of a small company from Spain’s Basque country. Ennera manufacturers a small wind turbine that was tested by GL Garrad Hassan to international standards and received its MCS certification (MCS TUV 0014) from TUV-NEL. If this wind turbine were sold in the US, it would qualify for the federal tax credits that UGE does not.

And of course there are other manufacturers of small wind turbines in Europe and North America that have had their wind turbines tested and certified. Those are not the ones on the Eiffel Tower, however.

Georges Darrieus, the inventor of vertical-axis wind turbines like those marketed by UGE, was a pioneer in wind energy, ballistics, and turbo alternators. He believed in testing his designs, and he tested one of his vertical-axis turbines in a wind tunnel in Toulouse. Darrieus, unlike Parisian politicians, learned from his mistakes. The results of his tests so disappointed him that he never built a full-scale version of his own invention. He would have never put an unproven product on the Eiffel Tower.