Going With The Wind

February 15, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Cascade Engineering believes it knows which way the wind is blowing — toward a growing market for products that help conserve energy or generate it from sustainable, clean sources such as wind and solar.

Early this summer, probably in June, the plastic products manufacturing company will begin production of blades and rotors for the Swift Rooftop Wind Energy System, which has been produced in Scotland for almost five years. Other components of the Swift electrical generator turbine will be shipped to Cascade Engineering, which will assemble the complete turbine and serve as exclusive distributor of it throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The Swift was designed by Scottish engineers Charles Silverton and David Anderson, who formed a company in 2002 called Renewable Devices. In a Scottish government publication posted on the Internet in 2006, the Swift is described as "the world's first truly silent rooftop wind turbine … intended for residential and small business customers, offering reduced-energy costs." The report also states that "the Swift has now passed a rigorous independent technical due diligence and the turbine has achieved international acclaim as the safest, quietest and most efficient rooftop wind generation system available today."

One Swift wind turbine can generate up to 1.5 kilowatts, and over an average year it is expected to produce about 2,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, about 20 percent of the average annual demand of an American house.

"This is clearly a supplement to your overall energy use," said Michael Ford, manager of the renewable energy business unit at Cascade Engineering, but he noted that more than one Swift turbine can be mounted on a house, and "we encourage multiple installations."

The five blades, made of an advanced plastic material, are mounted within a ring that measures 2.1 meters in diameter (about 6 feet, 10.5 inches).

According to Ford, wind turbines had been traditionally designed for mounting on a tower in an open area, away from trees and houses. The Swift is mounted on an aluminum mast attached to a rooftop, or the mast can be attached high up on the wall of a house or building, with the wind turbine projecting above the roof line.

Ford said the diffuser ring around the blade tips "substantially reduces noise and vibration" to the point where it is "negligible."

"That's what allows you to attach it to an existing structure," he said. "The beauty of the Swift is its ability to be integrated with the building."

Ford noted that it is designed for an urban environment. While some residential zoning might prohibit wind turbines mounted on stand-alone towers, those same regulations may allow homeowners to mount roof-top devices, such as cable television receivers — or wind turbines.

The first Swifts built by Renewable Devices in Scotland were sold in 2003, and about 250 have been installed to date, mainly in Europe.

According to Jessica Lehti, sales and marketing manager for Cascade Engineering's renewable energy unit, Renewable Devices was having a difficult time keeping up with demand. The new partnership with Cascade Engineering is, in effect, a full-scale launch of the product on the world market, she said. Production will also continue in Scotland.

Ford said Cascade Engineering expects to sell about 1,000 Swift turbines in North America in their first full year of production, at a targeted retail price of about $10,000 each. The units are designed for a life of 20 years and require "fairly simple" maintenance, mainly involving visual inspection, according to Ford.

Ford said five employees are now working in the Swift unit at Cascade Engineering but he expects that number "will double by July."

"This is our first wind turbine product," said Ford, but added the company is working on other wind turbines in the product development stage.

Cascade Engineering is well-known for plastic parts produced for the automotive industry, plus other plastic products for industry and consumers, including waste containers, medical devices and water purification filters used in developing countries. The company employs more than 700 in Grand Rapids plants, and has a total of about 1,000 employees at all locations, which includes Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Budapest.

"This is truly a new business for us — but in no way are we abandoning automotive," or the other markets served by the company, said Ford. "We're actually seeing growth again in automotive."

He added that being in the automotive parts industry "has not been an easy time, but companies like ours are going to get through."

Cascade Engineering is going green in several directions.

Last year Fred Keller, CEO and founder, formed a company called ChooseRenewables.com, which offers products and services supporting energy conservation and production of energy through renewable resources such as wind, solar and biomass. The Web site provides information on average wind energy at any location in the U.S., and it even offers monthly rental of anemometers "to see if your home is a good candidate for a wind turbine."

Renewable Energy Certificates can also be bought on ChooseRenewables.com. RECs are a means of buying electrical energy generated with renewable resources. Microchip manufacturer Intel Corp. announced in January that it is making the largest-ever purchase by a corporation of RECs, good for 1.3 billion kilowatt hours per year. PepsiCo Inc. also buys RECs for 1.1 billion kilowatt hours per year, equivalent to all its energy use. The U.S. government is reportedly the biggest buyer of renewable energy certificates in the United States.

“ChooseRenewables is Cascade’s first effort to sell into the retail world via the Internet," said Keller. "Owning some part of the channel to market, and manufacturing behind that channel, is a growth strategy for Cascade, and this provides an excellent platform for us to do just that.”

The Swift turbine may be the first significant wind generator production in Michigan, but Michigan lags behind the other states in support of wind-generated electricity.

"Unfortunately, the state of Michigan does not have any incentives for wind (generated electricity) right now," said Lehte.

According to Tom Stanton, coordinator of the state of Michigan's Renewable Energy Program, unlike Michigan, some states "offer a variety of things like special financing, grants and tax incentives" for installation of renewable energy equipment.

Although Stanton said he has not extensively studied wind generation incentives in other states, "I know that for solar, incentive packages go as high as 50 percent or more of the purchase cost in California and New Jersey."

The amount of energy generated by the wind increased by 45 percent in the U.S. last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. It reported in January that installed wind turbines of "utility size" — 100 kW or larger — generated a total of 16,818 MW of electricity in 34 states in 2007.

The association estimates that American wind farms will generate 48 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of wind energy in 2008, which it said is just over 1% of U.S. electricity supply, powering the equivalent of over 4.5 million homes.

The states that generate the most electricity from large wind turbines are Texas (4,356 MW), California (2,439 MW), Minnesota (1299 MW), Iowa (1273 MW), and Washington (1,163 MW). Michigan is listed 14th in the top 20 states for potential wind energy production, according to the AWEA, but ranked 30th of 34 states in the amount of energy produced by large turbines. The Michigan total was 3 MW.

Last week, General Electric announced it expects revenue from its wind turbine business to approach $6 billion.

"The wind business continues to exceed our expectations," said John Rice, a vice chairman of the company, the second-largest U.S. company by market capitalization. "The market has determined that the economics work."

Rice said that GE now has wind turbine orders extending into 2010, past the expiration of a U.S. tax credit for new turbine construction. About two-thirds of the company's wind turbine sales are for the United States, with the balance going to the rest of the world, according to the announcement.

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