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Wind Energy

March 21, 2021
Paul Gipe

Oh No Not Them Again: Bladeless Wind Turbines are Back

As a subscriber to the Guardian newspaper I nearly choked on my coffee at 4.30 in the morning last week while I was scrolling through my news feed. I stumbled on Bladeless turbines could bring wind power to your home. “Oh Lordy,” I thought to myself. “My inbox is going to be full of this all day.” Sure enough, a few minutes later I get a ping and it was Bob Tregilus (he’s an early riser too) texting, “Did you see this.”

It had started.

I successfully put them all off for as long as I could. Finally they got the best of me. My fans expected a response. (Still shocking to me that I have fans.)

Most disturbing was the note from a battle-scarred colleague—who should know better—exclaiming, “Look who’s backing them.”

Why me I moaned? I’ve debunked more than my share of wild windmill inventions. I devote a section of my web site to the topic (see Inventions & Questionable Turbines) and that’s separate from the sections on Ducted Wind Turbines and Vertical Axis Wind Turbines. I wrote a whole chapter on novel wind turbines in my new book to be done with the topic.

Others, more skilled than I, have picked up the baton. Michael Barnard’s take downs of internet wonders are legendary. For a sample of his work, see What is the most effective and efficient design for a wind generator? Simon Mahan’s Debunking Wind Turbine Fads exquisitely eviscerated this particular device during its first media incarnation in 2015.

But it’s back. The Vortex Bladeless wind turbine is back with a splash in the Guardian.

I’ve taken pot shots at “bladeless wind turbines” before. See Another Bladeless Windmill Stalks the Mindscape (2013), everything I wrote there applies to this device though they use different technologies. And I’ve described how to spot scams, frauds, & flakes in Fantasy Wind Turbines or If It's Too Good To Be True.

So I am not going to re-invent the wheel here. I am just going to summarize a few points. I am sorry if that disappoints some. So be it.

The short response is that they don’t have a product. They have an experimental device, if that.

I like to quote Herr Professsor Robert Gasch, a man who knows wind energy and has taught some of the leaders in the field. His advice? If there is a new wind turbine, no one should pay the slightest attention to it until they "build it, measure it, and publish" the results. Until then, it's just hot air—and nothing more no matter who is backing it.

In short, if Vortex Bladeless wind turbines has measured the performance of their “device,” they have not published the results and that’s telling.

Vortex Bladeless’ press kit says “Vortex wind generators are expected to have lower cost, carbon footprint and usage of materials than regular wind turbines.” The key word here is “expected” that is, they haven’t done it yet.

The press kit also says they expect to launch the product in “late 2020 for Europe.” Elsewhere on their web site they say that the product is only 50% of the way to certification. That is, it’s not certified by anyone. Yet, they still plan to launch it.

The press kit goes on to say they plan to build 100 units in early 2021 to gather data on its “behavior.” No further mention of whether their device will be certified by that time or not.

If you download their “technical paper” from 2018 there’s no data—null, nada—on the performance of the device even though it was presumably tested in a wind tunnel. And keep in mind this thing has been around at least since 2015. That’s a lot of time to collect data on its performance.

There’s a test station for small turbines in Spain where Vortex Bladeless is located. Why haven’t they tested their device there? Why haven’t they tested the device themselves and published the results?

While they may not be good at testing, they are very good at winning awards, grants, and media attention.

They won a grant from the foundation for the Spanish oil company Repsol in 2014. They then hit the media and the first round of glowing press reports began showing up in 2015.

As an aside, don’t confuse the Vortex vibrating device with the equally questionable Vortec ducted wind turbine that went defunct a few decades ago. They are not the same technology. Vortex uses a tall tubular cylinder that vibrates in the wind and thus the frequent references to it resembling a phallic vibrator. Vortec was a ducted wind turbine.

For seasoned veterans, the Vortex Bladeless wind turbine and its glowing press reports ticks all the boxes for hype.

Labeled pioneers. Check.

The Guarding piece began right off the bat by calling the Spanish inventors “pioneers.” Sigh. Ok, it hasn’t been done before. But there could be a reason it hasn’t been done before and that’s a question the Guardian doesn’t ask. Moreover, they can’t be pioneers until they get somewhere—and they haven’t gone anywhere in six years.

Support by clueless corporate titans. Check.

The Guardian article notes that the Norwegian oil and gas giant Equinor has touted the company as one of ten “most exciting startups.” Ok, what does Equinor know about wind energy, especially small wind turbines? Likely not very much. The history of wind energy and particularly small wind is littered with the failures of big corporations. Recall all the hoopla around the British inventors of the sleek VAWT Quiet Revolution and its backing by German utility RWE. As I note in my book, RWE wasn’t a significant developer of wind energy in its home market—one of the largest wind markets in the world at the time. In fact it was an ardent opponent of wind energy. When RWE finally pulled their support, Quiet Revolution quietly disappeared. Typically the investment in small wind by electric utilities or oil companies has been the kiss of death.

Generated media buzz. Check.

Vortex’s device is apparently all the rage—again—on internet forums. The Guardian writes that Vortex has attracted “more than 94,000 ratings and 3,500 comments” on Reddit as some evidence of interest in the device. Having thousands of “likes” by forum users isn’t the same as having some intrinsic value, such as doing the job for which it was designed.

Reduces the visual impact of wind turbines. Check.

Of course it does. It only stands three meters (~10 feet) tall and photos only show one of them. If you install thousands of these things in a group, it doesn’t. Geesh.

Doesn’t kill birds. Check.

See above. It’s only one small device. If it’s bigger and there are tens of thousands of them, it will kill birds too just as buildings, fences, cars and other obstructions do. And most likely the inventors have never done a thorough study of the device’s impact on birds so it’s easy to say—and despicable to say as well—that it won’t harm birds.

Silent, or nearly so, check.

Credit where credit is due. Vortex doesn’t say it’s silent—only “nearly so.” That’s a modest improvement on the hype around most other wind inventions.

Feeds the perceived need to compete with “home” solar. Check.

The inventor says as much in the Guardian piece. This sounds eerily reminiscent of all the hoopla around “rooftop” wind turbines a decade ago largely from would be inventors in Britain, but also a few on the continent, that small wind turbines could be put atop buildings. At the time solar was expensive so the concept was to use cheap wind turbines on rooftops instead. See Rooftop and Urban Wind for how this turned out. Most tests showed the wind turbines used more electricity than they produced. Solar is now dirt cheap, ending—we hope—the rooftop wind distraction.

So much for Vortex Bladeless wind turbines. Not to be tied down by one scheme, the Guardian goes on to tout more wind innovations, one a vertical axis wind turbine that generates electricity without wind.

Hmm. That’s a new one for me. I don’t have a category for a wind turbine that doesn’t need wind. I wish I’d known about this forty years ago when I started working with wind energy. It would have saved me—and many other people—a lot of trouble.

Wind energy without wind. Check (new category).

Alpha 311 claims that it “generates energy without natural wind,” suggesting that the turbine will “turn” from passing cars or trains. In other words, the wind created by the passing cars will power the wind turbines. Ah, this has been proposed, tried, and discarded so many times we don’t keep track of such proposals any more. We go about drinking our coffee in peace.

The Guardian article noted that the company has a contract to put the things on the towers of London’s Millennium Dome and will “generate clean electricity for the nine million people” who visit the venue annually. Of course, the Guardian wisely never says how much electricity the things will actually produce. In a companion piece, they quote the company saying ten of their small turbines will produce enough electricity for 23 households.

Ok, let’s try a thought experiment. We can assume a British household will consume 4,000 kWh per year. (The British are not Americans; they consume much less electricity than we Yankees.) For 23 households, the turbines would have to generate 90,000 kWh per year or nearly 9,000 kWh per turbine. These things are not even one meter tall and much less wide. The original version, says the Guardian, was only two meters tall. The tallest of these would be hard pressed to produce 1,000 kWh per year—anywhere. I don’t know what they’re smoking, but it must be some good stuff.

Going for a trifecta, the Guardian then heads on over to Germany and its SkySails. I single out SkySails in my book for their attempt to use sails for ship propulsion. It was the one example of “airborne” wind energy that I thought had promise. Apparently, they’re still around. Most other airborne wind energy companies have failed. Most spectacularly, Google abandoned its Makani kite program in early 2020, an albatross—it much resembled—that burned through millions of the search engine’s money.

Barely casts a shadow. Check.

Whoa, that’s another new one I’ll have to add to the inventor’s checklist. The Spanish developers of the sky vibrator missed a lick there. They don’t cast much of a shadow either. I’ll bet those Alpha 311 VAWTs don’t cast a shadow as well—with or without wind.

SkySails, not to be outdone by the Spanish newcomers with their fossil fuel backers, notes that German utility RWE’s partnership with the firm will raise their kite’s power from its current 100 kW to 200 kW up to the megawatt size. That’s the same RWE that backed Quiet Revolution. RWE’s still at it too.

The Guardian packed a lot into one puff piece—three revolutionary inventions in one go. That doesn’t happen often.

I’ve suggested to the author to run these inventions by experts in the field the next time she takes up the subject. There’s still quite a few experts in Britain even post-Brexit. It would save me from cleaning up spilled coffee at 4.30 in the morning.



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