A Story of Innovation, Integrity, and Tenacity
“Engineering for wind energy turbines is like trying to build a car that has the characteristics of a Prius, a Ferrari, and a tractor, with the price tag of an Hyundai.”
Bob Thomas, WHI Co-Founder and Design Engineer
Innovators often focus on what is not noticed or attended to by others. Bob Thomas watched the US Wind Energy program administrators, in the 1970s, decide to support tall, horizontal turbines. His instincts in the field and labs told him that smaller, simpler, less expensive, and more durable VAWTs had an important role to play in wind energy’s future.
Pioneering in new areas, conceptually and technically, means getting comfortable in an exploratory and learning mode. Depending on the scope and complexity of the challenges undertaken, the adventure is ongoing and landmarks are measured by decades and years as well as by days. Such is the story of a man with a vision, and the commitment to pursue that doggedly, finding key partners along the way.
With the 1973 Oil Embargo, the people running the newly created US Federal Wind Energy Program decided, (after very brief studies) decided that the most efficient approach would be to design the largest possible horizontal axis turbines. Bob Thomas, then head of Energy Conservation and Wind Energy Programs at the Naval Civil Engineering Lab, saw things differently. Out of his work in the Masters Program in Environmental Sciences at University of California, Thomas had been experimenting with a different kind of turbine: a vertical axis turbine (VAWT).
Like many innovators, Bob found most intriguing and compelling what was NOT being explored by the federal wind programs. His instincts in the field and labs told him that smaller, simpler, less expensive, and more durable VAWTs had an important role to play in wind energy’s future.
Over the next four decades, key events documented Bob’s tenacity and integrity based on strong personal relationships and shared values. In 1975 he partnered with attorney George Wagner, successful pioneer of California’s Coastal Protection Act. They were joined by Sam Francis, internationally renown expressionist painter whose financial success underwrote Wind Harvest International in its early years.
Through prototyping and field testing, the learning continued. Bob took several years out when he was asked by then-and-now Governor Jerry Brown to head up California’s Wind Energy programs, under the California Energy Commission(CEC). Bob’s work at the CEC is highly regarded by historians of those decades: he shaped and was deeply involved with the players, the resources, and the finances of the burgeoning industry. Working internationally with Denmark producers and others, Bob acquired a respect for the direction of large HAWTs. Yet, he had a caution that huge opportunities were being lost by the industry not pursuing R&D for vertical axis, smaller and more modular turbines.
Rounds of WHI prototyping and private research date from 1982 when Bob returned to WHI, supported by private investors who met Bob and George and recognized the importance of their work. As with many engineers, Bob is both a visionary and a serious pragmatist: he and his company would display a commitment to excellence of their products and integrity in their relationships. This story continues to this day, and the newer engineering teams work closely with Bob Thomas: there is no replacement for experience in the field.
1990 Discovery of the Coupled Vortex Phenomena
Through observation of their 1066 VAWT prototype, Bob observed the strators moving in such a way as to give visual evidence of the actual, as opposed to the theoretical, dynamics of the turbine flow field.
WHI tested the impact of the Coupled Vortex effect on three 530G WHI turbine prototypes set in a linear array in Palm Springs, California. After a year of testing, the vortex effect demonstrated a 75% increase in power input over the course of the year’s testing.
WHI, after further prototyping and development, contracted for modeling of the coupled vortex effect with world-renown Dr. Ion Paraschivoiu of Iopara. Dr. Paraschivoiu discovered that the power estimates which WHI had made from its Palm Springs project were incorrect: they were too low.
Years later, WHI secured a positional patent for the close placement of VAWTs in such a way as to capture this effect. Dr. John Dabiri, full professor at California Institute of Technology, has done extensive research further validating both the focus on the flow field that Bob identified, but also the potential for increased power density by building out the understory of existing wind farms to increase the capacity factor. Power density principles and dynamics support a full build-out of VAWTs for many new sites where infrastructure and transmission can be sized to accommodate added energy production.
Subsequent rounds of prototyping have led to today’s WHI 1068 turbine now undergoing certification at the Danish Technical University. This 70kW turbine builds on the decades of original research and development, and the years of field experience and understanding of niche market needs.
Bob and George have been joined by a rich team of modelers, structural and electrical engineers and project managers, along with business support. Collaboration with team members in California, Europe and Australia are leading Wind Harvest International forward to serve today’s demand for renewable wind energy.
The team is inspired by the pioneering work of its founders, as well as the wisdom of a clearly articulated challenge.