The Nature Conservancy Clams Up on Ducted Turbine Debacle–Who Will Pay to remove it?

By Paul Gipe

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), one of the nation’s premier land preservation trusts, isn’t talking about its failed investment in a ducted wind turbine debacle 1,000 miles from Hawaii.

They have no comment on whether they plan to remove the device from their wildlife preserve on Palmyra Atoll in the equatorial Pacific. Or whether they plan to leave the structure–it is not a functioning wind turbine and never was–as a monument to hubris and magical thinking.

The tubular structure that Bob Tregilus has likened to an old-time blunderbuss stands derelict near the only airport serving the atoll.

High-flying visitors to TNC’s preserve will no doubt ask questions about that odd device near the runway. Only TNC knows how they will reply. Will TNC tell them it was a “valiant effort” to use renewable energy as one TNC employee claimed? Or will they come clean and admit that they didn’t do their homework, that they should have known better, that it was a mistake from the start. Unlikely, yes.

TNC has no comment either on how much they spent on the venture, or how much it would cost to dismantle the structure–once hyped as the “new face” of wind power–and ship the pieces for proper disposal on the mainland.

I studiously avoid commenting on every crackpot wind invention that circulates on the internet. It’s a black hole that sucks up time that can be used more productively elsewhere. I only look into these ventures when they’re thrown in my face and their outlandish claims affect the work that I do.

That was the case with TNC’s demonstration of SheerWind-Invelox’s “device”. I’d been able to ignore them for some time. I had my head down, minding my own business monitoring a forum on electric vehicles, the Nissan Leaf forum to be specific, when this topic, INVELOX: A Wind-energy solution I can fully support, appeared.

A forum on electric vehicles!

The unstated message here is that other wind energy solutions–the ones that work–don’t receive the poster’s full support. Worse, the post regurgitated the hype from SheerWind’s press release that the “game changing” device would generate electricity without killing birds. The same hype, the same uncritical repetition of SheerWind’s marketing pitch, was then found in the tech press, such as at WindPower Engineering, in liberal blogs, such as, and who knows how often it appeared on other “green” web sites. All extolled TNC’s project.

A pitch that was never challenged by TNC.

By their acquiescence in the promotion of the Palmyra Atoll installation, by their silence in not correcting SheerWind’s account of the project, TNC became complicit in SheerWind’s hustle.

EnNGOs, such as TNC, are particularly obligated not to lend credence to such outlandish schemes. TNC’s implicit endorsement of devices like that promoted by SheerWind feeds anti-wind energy activists who want nothing better than to slow down the responsible development of wind energy.

No, it wasn’t a valiant effort to use a bird safe form of renewable energy, it was a scandal. TNC had many opportunities to correct the record. They failed to do so. They clammed up.

Not that scandal is new to TNC. With $3 billion in assets, TNC is one of the world’s richest environmental groups, according to the Washington Post when it launched a damning exposé in 2003, beginning with Inside the Nature Conservancy, Part One.

The Post’s series on TNC was the topic of conservation among professionals in the EnNGO world and even among volunteers in wild land preservation at the time. I remember discussing the series over lunch with a preserve manager during a work party here in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Nor was the project on Palmyra Atoll the first time that TNC used ineffective wind energy devices in greenwashing its image as a progressive conservation organization.

In a previous article, Another Poorly Sited Hoosier VAWT Vying for Worst Turbine Install, I charged TNC with installing green bling at the “crown jewel” of its facilities in Indiana. There they installed three Savonius whirlygigs on short towers, calling them wind turbines. While cute, the vertical-axis turbines TNC installed probably consumed more electricity than they generated.

Contrast TNC’s actions and its unwillingness to talk about the results of these failed ventures with that of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

In Bird Society Leads by Example: Operates Large Wind Turbine at Headquarters, I explain how one EnNGO–one specifically devoted to protecting birds–confronts head on the dilemma posed by using wind energy to power its facilities. They didn’t choose a token device, or a sham Potemkin wind turbine, they chose a real, working, commercial-scale wind machine. They forthrightly dealt with all the questions, conflict, and anger that that decision entailed. They saw it as part of their mission to explain what is necessary to confront climate change. And they openly explained how and why they reached the decision they did and what they’ve learned so far.

Unfortunately, that’s not how TNC nor many other American EnNGOs work.

TNC depends on donor support for its survival. Misuse of donor funds can seriously erode its ability to raise money for its mission of buying and preserving land. TNC’s reaction to the Palmyra scandal is simply to clam up.

As a volunteer with the TNC here in California I am aware of the good work they do. Without them even more of California would be despoiled by development. For those of us who support TNC’s mission, maintaining the public’s trust in TNC’s integrity should be a top priority. Hiding ill-conceived ventures from the public in a cloud of secrecy and obfuscation doesn’t serve TNC’s long-term interests or the interests of environmental preservation.

Wind energy is a field where TNC has no expertise. They should have done more homework–if they did any at all. The tragedy of TNC’s foolish venture with a ducted device on Palmyra Atoll is that the whole experience could have been avoided with a few phone calls or even a trip to a library. (Remember those?)

Ducted devices have a long, sad history. The end is never a happy one. Dew Oliver went to prison for his fraud in the 1920s and it’s been downhill ever since.

For those of us who work with the wind, we intuitively dismiss such devices and go on about our business. They can’t work, certainly not the type hyped by SheerWind. The wind simply goes around them. Despite the appearance, the wind doesn’t flow through the duct like water does inside a penstock of a hydroelectric plant.

Nor should anyone ever test an unproven device thousands of miles from the mainland–let alone 1,000 miles from Hawaii. The cost of repairs, mistakes, and, yes, failure is just too great. One reason Danes were so successful with wind energy is that they could test their turbines right in their own back yards–and they did. Still, Danes had problems with their machines when installed in far away California in the early 1980s.

And SheerWind’s Palmyra device was unproven. There was no test data. There was no certification. There was nothing–only the claims of its inventor. At best it was experimental.

Only a sucker would install something based solely on the claims of its promoter.

Further, anyone testing an unproven wind device should always set money aside for its removal and proper disposal. I suspect one reason TNC isn’t talking is that they haven’t set aside any money for removal.

Maybe that’s why this case is so egregious. TNC’s may very well choose to leave the thing there.

That TNC is trying to cover up their mistake suggests they may well be prone to the next hustler who comes along with another fantasy–too good to be true–device.

It’s bad enough that the Michigan National Guard was taken by this ducted turbine charlatan. They too could have avoided this calamity with a few phone calls. The Pentagon operates a number of commercial wind turbines around the world. They probably have someone on their own staff who could have advised them to steer clear of SheerWind.

The difference with the TNC is that the National Guard can always fall back on the public purse. TNC can only fall back on . . . its donors.

In an age of anti-science–even anti-reason–environmental organizations in particular should be keen to demonstrate the value of the scientific method over magic and the merit of proof over conjecture. A good dose of skepticism about a new and unbelievably wonderful device would have saved a lot of anguish for all involved in the Palmyra Atoll scandal.

Unfortunately, institutions typically react to a debacle such as this by circling the wagons, hunkering down, and waiting until the whole embarrassing saga blows over. When that happens they may never learn the lessons they–and their donors–have paid so dearly for.

We expect more from TNC. Their donors should too.

  • See for yourself the Palmyra video on Vimeo.
  • FaceBook Comments on SheerWind Ducted Disaster
  • Another Ducted Device Dead: SheerWind-Invelox Bankrupt
  • SheerWind Invelox Demo Turbine in Need of Demolition
  • SheerWind-Invelox–Is the End Nigh for Another Ducted Turbine?
  • Fantasy Wind Turbines or If It’s Too Good To Be True . . .