For rain and wind and fire
The rain is Tess, the fire Joe
And they call the wind Mariah”
– from the song
In the wide and seemingly ever-expanding world of renewable energy technology, vertical axis wind turbines haven’t gotten much respect. Besides challenging age-old design conventions, the fact that they are suited to small-scale, distributed and off-grid applications has meant that they’ve been pretty much orphaned by the fast moving, big money crowd. Those attitudes have been changing of late, however; thanks in large part to the dedicated efforts of people working at and investing in entrepreneurial start-ups such as Mariah Power.
The “offspring” of a successful entrepreneur and two inventors who, having come up with a design for an extremely efficient generator, decided to apply it to the design of a vertical axis wind turbine, more than 100 of Mariah Power’s Windspire 1.2-kilowatt VAWTs are now up and running around the country, and the company and partner MasTech Manufacturing are about to start high-volume manufacturing at the latter’s upgraded metal fabrication and assembly plant in Manistee, Michigan.
“I believe we’ve already changed some attitudes about vertical axis wind turbines, by taking our product seriously. There are a lot of people who really want to see a VAWT succeed, they just didn’t think it could be done,” Mariah’s Tracy Twist asserted.
The Rocky Road to Design Success
Even with their new generator design in hand, the two men who invented what would come to be Mariah’s Windspire vertical axis wind turbine found that when it comes to designing wind turbines, the going is tougher than many people think. After spending a year working on a design, they brought in Michael Hess, a successful entrepreneur, as CEO and started raising capital and hiring engineers..
“The technology went through lots of ups and downs, but we completed the product in June of 2008, and since then we have further expanded and grown as a technology company, including implementing a program of continual improvement and expanding the product pipeline to other versions – off-grid, 240V, low-wind, and 3-kW to name a few,” Twist recounted.
Some of the hurdles Mariah’s had to overcome have to do with facing up to, and staring down, conventional industry wisdom and prevailing attitudes about vertical axis wind turbines.
“Industry attitudes are skeptical to the point of being cynical about vertical axis wind turbines because so many nice looking turbines that spin and don’t produce power have appeared on the market in the past,” Twist commented. “This is one hurdle – relentless industry attitudes can be distracting and frustrating when you’re trying to do things differently.”
There’s usually some pretty good reasons why the status quo came to be the status quo, and challenging it is not for the weak-willed or weak of heart, she continued.
“Early on we decided we wanted to make a product that really works, one that actually helps overcome the environmental challenges this world is facing. We made it our mandate to do independent testing and to take our ratings from real, on-ground test data.”
If At First You Don’t Succeed
Mariah’s first attempt, a Savonius style turbine, failed in terms of meeting power production targets, which sent the engineering team back to the drawing board for a complete re-design. “There were plenty of other design and electrical challenges to overcome as we kept on with the development. There really is a lot of engineering that goes into making a new style of wind turbine that works well,” she explained.
“We were not afraid to challenge the status quo, and try things people said couldn’t be done because they hadn’t been done. That is the only way progress can be made…”
Now the company’s looking forward to commissioning an inaugural high-volume production run with business partner MasTech Manufacturing at its plant in Manistee, Michigan. “It’s great, because it’s also putting people to work during these hard times. They’ve already hired about 50, and expect to grow to some 120 over the next three years. Our core team has also added more people, mostly engineers with various specialties. We’re moving pretty fast,” Twist said.
Windspiring the “Small” Wind Industry
With the environment and energy security becoming mainstream concerns, the “small wind” industry is growing rapidly, according to Twist, through the twin financial and economic crises have thrown a wrench in the works.
Ten thousand small wind turbines were sold in the U.S. in 2007, with sales spread across all 50 states, according to the American Wind Energy Association. It’s a market that’s expected to grow rapidly as concerns about high electricity prices and global warming are likely to persist if not increase.
“Cash is king in any business, and that’s especially true when credit is tight. We’re trying to be very careful fiscally, but this doesn’t just mean cutting costs – it also means growing business, just doing things wisely.
“We are still a young company with a lot of potential. We’re looking forward to growth and product diversification. We don’t see the economy as a noose, rather as a constant reminder to be smart in the way we do business,” Twist said.
So, what have been the key attributes that have made a real difference in terms of enabling Mariah Power to get where it is today?
“Tenacity – sticking with it and believing we can make it through the challenges,” Twist responded. “Core Values – not accepting anything less than a quality product that works. An amazing team – people who work creatively to build a product that truly a giant step forward.”
Would she be willing to offer some guidance or advice to those aspiring to be entrepreneurs in the small-scale wind and broader distributed or off-grid renewable power sectors?
“Do your homework and have a realistic view of what is involved – it’s not a walk in the park. Don’t underestimate the depth of engineering that goes into this kind of technology, and I would assume that goes for other distributed generation or off-grid technologies too.”