Oh the ways of the wind. It blows where it will–or something to that effect. We were on our way to pick cherries. That’s a fairly innocuous activity. From Bakersfield we had to cross the Antelope Valley to reach Palmdale. Well, I thought. I might as well stop by Dr. John O. Dabiri’s test site and take some pictures of his experiment in “schooling” wind turbines.
We found the site easy enough. You drive to the end of the paved road then you drive to the end of the dirt road then you follow a dirt track and, well, there you are. It’s off the beaten path that’s for sure.
I got my photos and a lot more than I bargained for. It was another trip down the rabbit hole.
Let’s back up a step first. Before we left Bakersfield a colleague in New York State sent me a link with that feared question: “What do you think of this?” I get these queries all the time. As a self-styled wind expert, friends, colleagues, and every Tom, Dick, and Harry want my opinion on some internet wonder.
I made the mistake of clicking on the link that took me to Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, a Washington, DC think tank. The link took me to a video on their web site of . . . Dr. Dabiri’s test site. More on this video in a moment.
This is all prelude to my photos of the test site—and their significance.
The complete site was “down” as we say in the business. There wasn’t a single wind turbine operating. There wasn’t even a single wind turbine standing. Each wind turbine had been lowered to the ground and the turbine removed from the tower.
Many of the Vertical-Axis Wind Turbines (VAWTs) looked damaged with a kink in some of the blades mid span. Some blades were crumpled.
Dr. Dabiri burst onto the wind energy scene a number of years ago with his theory of how schools of fish swim with the least effort. It’s been a long time since I read his paper, but if I remember correctly he observed that the tails of the fish moved in opposition to its neighbors. This led him to suggest that “schooling” of wind turbines turning in opposition to its neighbors would be more efficient than if all spun in the same direction.
This presupposes that the turbines spin about a vertical axis. Thus, VAWTs were Dr. Dabiri’s choice to demonstrate how his theory would work in the field. Thus began Dr. Dabiri’s controversial work with VAWTs at his test site.
Dabiri Test Field
Dr. Dabiri was affiliated with the California Institute of Technology. He’s currently on the faculty of Stanford University. Both are prestigious California academic institutions. He calls his test site in the Antelope Valley the Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy (FLOWE).
The site is off-the-grid. There’s no power to the site. That in itself isn’t a problem. I ran a test site in the Tehachapi Pass to measure the performance of battery-charging wind turbines. However, Dr. Dabiri’s choice of a remote site for his test field complicates testing wind turbines that are intended for connection to the grid.
In late April 2017 the site was vandalized. Some of the turbines went into overspeed and were subsequently damaged. All the turbines were lowered to the ground and removed from their towers. This was the way I found the site.
Dr. Dabiri has not had good luck with VAWTs. “By default we’ve done destructive testing at the site,” he says. “Commercially available VAWTs that we tested are simply junk. None of the turbines we tested are ready for prime time.”
He’s used Windspire, Aeolus, and most recently Wing Power Energy. It was the Wing Power turbines I saw on the ground. Dr. Dabiri will next turn his attention to UGE’s VAWTs.
I’ve written about UGE before. See UGE Dumps VAWT Business—What Happens Now to Eiffel Tower & Lincoln Field Turbines?, A Tale of Two Turbines and Eiffel’s Tower, Poor Comparison Between Small VAWT and Small HAWT: UGE’s VisionAIR Pushing the Limits. . . of Hype.
If UGE’s turbines don’t work satisfactorily, Dr. Dabiri will turn his Stanford students loose to design their own VAWT.
Wing Power’s VAWTs Down
As part of my due diligence before publishing the photos of the test site I called Wing Power Energy. I got a “virtual office.” There was no one physically there from Wing Power Energy to take a call. In fact the operator said they don’t really take phone calls for them and she eventually just hung up. This was somewhat better than the last few times when I called Ogin of ducted turbine fame. They didn’t even bother to pick up the phone. So, I sent Wing Power an email. I never got a reply.
Dr. Dabiri is listed as one of four advisors to Wing Power.
As noted all the Wing Power turbines had been removed from their towers when I visited the site and several were damaged as seen in the accompanying photos.
Climate Reality Project Hypes a Failed VAWT
What makes Dr. Dabiri’s work controversial is the claims resulting from his work. A 29 April 2016 article in Forbes, a business magazine, is fairly typical of the over-the-top hype that his work has engendered. The inflammatory title Small Turbines Can Outperform Conventional Wind Farms, Stanford Prof Says, With No Bird Kill is wrong or misleading on several levels. The video accompanying this article shows an aerial drone fly by of the test site with a dozen or so Windspire turbines spinning merrily.
However, in a 2015 journal article Dr. Dabiri himself shows the failure of some of those very Windspire turbines spinning in the video illustrating the 2016 article.
On 2 May 2017 Gore’s Climate Reality Project posted a blog titled Three Cutting Edge Developments in Clean Energy, featuring three videos. Two of the three videos are uncontroversial.
Unfortunately, the first item, dubbed “Eggbeater Turbines” launched a video circulated by the World Economic Forum (WEF) of Davos fame with the tag line, “Check out these futuristic new wind turbines.” The video with footage provided by “Dabiri Lab” shows a drone fly by of the Dabiri test site with an array of, yes, you guessed it, Wing Power turbines.
The text associated with the video is as inflammatory as the Forbes article. First, the turbines are not futuristic at all. They are rather klunky, run-of-the-mill VAWTs. Nor are they new. VAWTs, and particularly these straight-bladed VAWTs, were patented by Georges Darrieus in the late 1920s.
The video begins with an unequivocal statement that “These futuristic wind turbines produce 10 times more power than traditional ones.” And it goes downhill from there with a litany of unsubstantiated claims why VAWTs are superior to existing wind turbines.
I’ve written about VAWTs—the pros and cons–many times before. So I am not going to do so here. I devote a section of my web site to Vertical Axis Wind Turbines, and a subsection of the photo pages on my web site to Vertical Axis Wind Turbines (VAWTs) of various stripes. My new book Wind Energy for the Rest of Us includes an entire chapter on VAWTs. My position can be summed up by this article Fantasy Wind Turbines or If It’s Too Good To Be True . . . from 2009 or this one Questionable Turbines and Siting Give Architects, LEED, Green Builders, and Wind Bad Name from 2013. I am not unbiased on the topic.
On 6 June 2017 I posted a query to Climate Reality Project about the WEF video, asking their press officer how they chose this video and why they posted it on their web site. The implication of my call is that posting a video on a suspect technology with the imprimatur of former Vice President Gore hurts the effort to address climate change rather than helps it.
I called them 10 July 2017 to confirm that they had no response. The press officer replied that they had modified the web page as a result of my call. Despite the press officer’s claim, there was no apparent change to the text and the video. The video still opened with the same unqualified statement as before and the text of the blog remained the same.
One howler in the text by the Climate Reality Project is this: “VAWTs take up less land because they can be positioned closely to one another.” This statement is based clearly on Dr. Dabiri’s assertions for which there is limited evidence.
The other outlandish claims in the video and the blog’s text can be found in the product literature of any defunct VAWT promoter.
Most damning is that nearly all of the wind turbines depicted in the video are nothing more than scrap and their so-called manufacturer doesn’t answer the telephone or email.
Vice President Gore is a partner in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capitalists. Kleiner Perkins invested in and promoted FloDesign-Ogin, a defunct developer of another revolutionary wind turbine concept.
As of early July 2017 the video of the now-inoperative wind turbines had been watched 1.7 million times!
Currently, there is one wind turbine operating at the Dabiri test field. All but one of the wind turbines shown in promotional videos, articles or journal papers based on the Dabiri test site are still operational—or even extant. Dr. Dabiri may yet find a VAWT that will work reliably for which he can gather irrefutable evidence on his “schooling” concept, but he’s not there yet. In the meantime, the WEF video continues to get clicks.
The next time I will stick to picking cherries and not be lured away by a rabbit diving down a hole.