WindStor VAWT: Another Sad Saga of Time & Money Wasted

By Paul Gipe

I first came across WindStor’s Vertical Axis Wind Turbine (VAWT) in the fall of 2005 at a conference on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine in the far reaches of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The program was titled Colloque international sur l’énergie éolienne et les régions éloignées, a conference on wind energy and remote sites, such as the archipelago east of Prince Edward Island.

Yes, it was a long time ago, and yes, I’ve been meaning to write something about them for years. Recently, I came across some files on WindStor while archiving research from my latest book. Though I didn’t consider WindStor significant enough for inclusion in the book, the files prompted this–another lessons learned–piece.

Îsles-de-la-Madeleine was an appropriate venue. The island is famous in the annals of wind energy for early experimentation with Darrieus VAWTs—what we then called “eggbeaters”. It was there where the adage that Darrieus VAWTs are not self-starting was broken. After the prototype DAF-Indal eggbeater on the island destroyed itself when the brakes had been unwisely removed, the adage was modified to “Darrieus VAWTs are not reliably self-starting”. That is, they’ll start when you least expect them to. . .

Hydro Quebec, the provincial utility, and DAF-Indal eventually installed another Darrieus turbine there. It was still standing—inoperative—near the airport when we flew there in October of 2005, nearly two decades after it had been installed.

I was the titular “President” of the conference. This was a big deal for me—an American, at a conference in Quebec that was primarily in French, so I remember it well.

VAWTs had been the bane of my work in Canada. Why develop wind energy now with the turbines we had, when we will have Canadian wind turbines producing electricity too cheap to meter sometime in the future was the refrain. So I quickly dismissed VAWTs of various stripes in my presentation, knowing full well that Canada and especially Quebec had been a hot bed of VAWT research.

So it wasn’t a complete surprise when a young Quebec engineer took me to task by name in his presentation on the wonderful new invention he had developed. Clearly he wanted to make an impression and appeal to Quebec nationalism by taking down the foreign expert who dismissed the province’s VAWTs.

This is all by preamble to note that the engineer was touting the prototype WindStor turbine they were “testing” for McKenzie Bay, a Michigan marketing company. The turbine had been installed at a remote site in the far north of the province at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec in 2005.

The turbine was unusual in that the lower part of the blades were not attached to the torque tube. Why they did this, I don’t know, probably to make the turbine appear different from those “other” Darrieus turbines that had all failed.

Of course the presentation by the young engineer was mostly the typical hype you expect from a promoter. It was going to be cheaper, produce more, allow roof top installations, and so on.

The company touted that the turbine had won “Energy Project of the Year–International” in 2005 by the Association of Energy Engineers. Who is the Association of Energy Engineers and what do they know about wind energy? Not much it seems.

Nowhere in the promotional literature did they provide the swept area of the rotor, one of the most fundamental aspects of a wind turbine. They gave the rotor diameter, so we can make an educated guess. The turbine swept somewhere from 250 to 300 m2 of the wind stream, giving the turbine a 50 kW to 60 kW rated power. This was a far cry from the 100 kW rated power they were selling. Again, this wasn’t unusual. It was, unfortunately, fairly typical.

What of the “test” results from the test turbine? Nada. In a press release the company reported that the turbine reached 100 kW. Somehow I came across a test sheet, the only data I can find on this turbine, and it shows the turbine reached 100 kW for 11 seconds. Yep, that’s it. I can’t find anything more than that. True test reports document turbines operating for days, weeks, and months to obtain accurate measurements.

WindStor was targeting “commercial rollout” in the spring of 2006. They had increased the size of the turbine to 24 meters in diameter and rated it at 200 kW for a published swept area of 378 m2. That’s equivalent to a 100 kW turbine, something like a Micon 108 from the 1980s.

Their estimates of generation were equally inflated: 500,000 kWh. That’s 1,300 kWh/ m2 for an unproven product. The best wind turbines in the world at the windiest sites in the world seldom reach such levels.

And, as expected, the turbine was greatly overpriced at $500,000 per unit. Though, if you were not in the wind industry you wouldn’t know that.

Tellingly, WindStor’s product literature announced that users would qualify for a wopping 14 LEED points if they put the thing on a building. For why this is dumb, see LEED Leads to Bad Wind.

In 2007 Radio Canada was reporting that the prototype turbine may be removed and its pieces parsed out after the failure of the Quebec developer Dermond.

There was nothing more online about the prototype until mid 2010 when WindStor installed a unit in Ishpeming on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I don’t know whether this was a derivative of the Quebec prototype or not because the guyed three-blade rotor, unlike the prototype in Quebec, attached the lower blades to the torque tube in a traditional manner. They finally got the turbine spinning in the fall.

WindStor replaced the blades in 2009.

Yet, in the fall of 2012 the local press was reporting that the turbine was going to be replaced with a Wind-e20, another Darrieus. The reports noted that WindStor and the Ishpeming Housing Commission worked for the past few years as the two companies worked to “overcome legal and design issues to develop a marketable renewable energy product” for the site at Pioneer Bluffs.

In the winter of 2012, some students at the Abitibi-Témiscamingue campus proposed using the turbine that had stood idle for six years for further experimentation.

In the fall of 2014, the local press was reporting the turbine had stood idle for five years. There’s a photo of the derelict turbine here: Wind Turbine, Ishpeming, Michigan, March 2014.

In the meantime, McKenzie Bay has changed its name to CGE Energy for Clean Green Energy and its web site touts the Wind-e20 in much the same manner as it did with WindStor–only with much better graphics.

In sum, another story of ill-advised “development” of a revolutionary Darrieus wind turbine with all the attendant hubris and hype. The sad saga cost the government of Quebec $350,000—money that could have been used on something far more beneficial to the people of the province.

Fortunately, wind energy has grown by leaps and bounds in Ontario and Quebec during the past decade despite calls to wait until something better comes along. That “something better” is always a mirage that’s just out of reach.