I am a little late with the news that Honeywell Windtronics, a purveyor of small “roof top” wind turbines has closed its doors, stiffing its customers and development agencies in at least two countries.
I am late because I don’t follow every crackpot invention in the wind energy field. There are simply too many. I only write about those that are particularly egregious. And once I write about them I don’t pay any further attention to them unless something noteworthy happens. In this case, it is a highly-hyped small wind turbine company going out of business.
Windtronics’ inventor—and I use that term loosely—Imad Mahawili issued a statement 14 January 2013 that the shop making the “wind turbines”, Altronics, closed its doors and subsequently Windtronics followed suit.
Should this be a cautionary tale? Of course. Will it be? Unlikely. The human penchant for panaceas knows no bounds. As a consequence, ever more Honeywell Windtronics overhyped “inventions” will besmirch renewable energy as consumers, governments, and politicians seek a “deal too good to be true”.
Despite the name, the company has no connection with Honeywell other than a “license” to use the once storied name. This subtle detail was of course overlooked by all those taken in by Windtronics’ hype, including Popular Science magazine, the state of Michigan, and the province of Ontario. Whether Honeywell, the conglomerate, is culpable or will lose a judgment by hungry attorneys hoping to win a class-action lawsuit will be determined by the courts.
Windtronics’ web site has disappeared. The home page where all the flimflammery began simply says “Site No Longer Available”. Mahawili’s statement appears on the version of the web site with the EU domain extension, though he apparently resides in Gainesville, Florida.
Who is Imad Mahawili? In a Businessweek article by Antone Gonsalves, Mahawili claims to be a serial entrepreneur with a PhD in chemical engineering from Imperial College, London. The article also claims that Honeywell tested Mahawili’s design as part of a worldwide search for energy-efficient turbines, and it “really stood out,” according to a quote from Tony Uttley, a Honeywell vice-president.
Interestingly, the author of the article, Antone Gonsalves is listed on the Businessweek web site as a “contributing author”. That’s news business speak for a freelancer who is not on staff. Outside authors are typically not under the direct journalistic control of the editors.
There is a vice president at Honeywell by the name of Tony Uttley.
What we do know about Mahawali is that he’s a man who knows how to get press—lots of it.
What is more difficult is to drill down into the details of what he has done before.
In searching for Mahawali’s background, I continued to stumble over the same statements repeatedly about his being a serial inventor, the two companies he started, and how the asian tsunami led him to design his breakthrough wind turbine.
For example, Businessweek also posted an abstract of an article titled, appropriately enough, Spin Doctor. The title was intended as a play on the rotating turbine, but possibly in a Freudian slip, was also a play on someone skilled at hyping a product—or themselves.
The article was written by Craig Turner, an Assistant Professor of Management and Marketing in the College of Business and Technology at East Tennessee State University. Now, in case it is not obvious, East Tennessee State University is not a hot bed of renewable energy research.
In Turner’s abstract he repeats the same claims about Malwali made elsewhere. However, Turner goes further and repeats Malwali’s claim that he invented “a new wind turbine that is three times as efficient at turning wind energy into electrical power” as other wind turbines.
What we do know is that Malwali became the executive director of the Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative & Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon (MAREC), Michigan in mid 2003. His specialty of chemical engineering makes sense in light of MAREC’s objective for Michigan “to be a leader in the application of fuel cell technologies in both stationary and mobile applications.”
However, Malwali, was not a mechanical or aeronautical engineer, had no experience in the wind energy industry, and his later “testing” of his bicycle-wheel wind turbine was crude if not deliberately misleading.
In the spring of 2009, Mahawili stepped down as director of MAREC so that he could devote more time to his renewable energy projects. In announcing his departure, the university repeated all the previous claims about Mahawili being a serial entrepreneur.
Windtronics and Mahawili first came to my attention in 2008 in part because he was attracting a lot of attention—and money from a state desperate for new jobs during he depth of the financial collapse.
At the time, legitimate renewable energy projects were hard pressed to win state attention, funding, and—more importantly—political support.
Why should the state and local governments make the hard decisions necessary to develop renewable energy in Michigan when Mahawili and Windtronics could make outlandish claims with little substantiation.
Essentially, a desperate Michigan, and eventually a desperate Ontario fell for the siren’s song of a “new, revolutionary, breakthrough wind turbine” that would drive economic growth and revived the regions’ ailing industrial economy.
Alas, as it has happened so many times before, the dream was a mirage. The money was spent. The “wind turbines” failed to perform in the field. Hopes were dashed. The plants closed their doors. The web sites go dark. All the time, money, and political support invested was wasted.
And Imad Mahawili sends out a press release saying, “I am sorry”.
The true tragedy of this sad saga is that anyone with a modicum of technical expertise would easily have seen that the entire edifice was built upon a fundamentally flawed design with a business model that was doomed from the start.
There’s plenty of blame to go around.
Certainly Imad Mahawili is to blame for promoting an untested product, Windtronics’ bicycle wheel turbine, for a market that doesn’t really exist, roof top wind turbines.
Others are equally at fault. That the state of Michigan, including the government of Jennifer Granholm, the province of Ontario, Honeywell, and Windtronics’ private investors could be so blinded by the slick sales pitch of Imad Mahawili is an indictment of their competence. They became, by their association with Windtronics, enablers of Imad Mahawili and his “invention”.