Hadley-based Venture Has Big Plans for ‘Small Wind’When Patrick Quinlan and Bill Stein went about the task of assigning a name to the company they started in 2012 to design, build, and service small wind turbines, they quickly settled on ‘Black Island.’
That phrase may not mean much to most people — Quinlan joked that many who hear it think it has something to do with pirates — but it does resonate with those who know their geography. Or their wind power.
Black Island, so named because of a distinct lack of snow — there is also a White Island nearby that obviously has some — is in the Ross Archipelago in Antarctica. It is home to a major U.S. telecommunications center, and is among the most climatologically inhospitable places in the world.
The official population is zero, and for good reason — actually, several reasons. The island is often visited by category-5 hurricane winds exceeding 150 mph, temperatures regularly dip south of 40 below zero, and the island is in absolute darkness for almost half the year.
For nearly three decades now, the facility there — America’s South Pole communications link to the world — has been powered in part by several of the so-called HR-3 (3-kilowatt) series of small wind turbines built by a Vermont-based company called Northwind Power Co, later renamed Northern Power Systems.
It was this product that Quinlan and Stein were recruited to essentially reintroduce to the market — Northern exited this stage in favor of ‘big wind’ products several years ago — by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). This was an entrepreneurial challenge they accepted, in part because they were both unemployed at the time, but also because they’ve been working in wind power throughout their careers and saw vast potential for products that fall in the category of what the industry calls ‘small wind.’
These would be units rated at under 10 kilowatts, said Quinlan as he spoke with BusinessWest in the company’s R&D facility in the ironically named Propeller Building on River Drive in Hadley. And there is growing demand for such products among commercial, industrial, and even residential users, he noted, adding that a study conducted by Navigant Research revealed that the market for small wind turbines will double to $3.3 billion annually by 2018.There will likely be many competitors for that growing pie, but Black Island, which also plans to develop a 1-kilowatt version of the HR (high-reliability) product, will be well-positioned, he noted, steering the conversation back to Antarctica and the brand name chosen for this venture. That remote location has become a proving ground of the highest magnitude for the HR series of products, he said, adding that the company uses a photo of an installation on that South Pole outpost, along with the slogan “Toughest Wind Turbines on the Planet,” in its marketing materials.
And while there aren’t many, if any, other places like Black Island, reliability, in general, has been an issue with small wind turbines, said Stein, adding that the Black Island product distinguishes itself in this regard due largely to a spring-damper system called VARCS (variable-angle rotor-control system), which enables the turbine to handle high winds by pitching the rotor upward into a helicopter position when winds are strong.
“The demonstrated survivability of our H-3 wind turbine is exemplary, and uniquely distinguishes our design,” he said, adding this competitive advantage is important because demand for such turbines will be great in areas where competitively priced solar power is not practical — like Antarctica and other places that don’t get much year-round sun.
The current business plan calls for the company to build a small number of 3-kilowatt wind turbines in the Hadley facility — it has already filled a few orders from the U.S. Air Force — and eventually scale up production of those units, most likely in conjunction with Greenfield-based Applied Dynamics, while also introducing the 1-kilowatt unit capable of powering a home or small business.
“We’re leveraging the great reputation of the HR series to build a very solid, practical wind turbine that we think will be attractive to everybody, because small wind does not have a great reputation for reliability otherwise,” said Quinlan. “And there are so many great applications for small wind.”
For this issue and its focus on green business, BusinessWest examines an emerging local company that is looking to make a powerful statement in an intriguing and potential-laden industry.
Turns for the Better
Quinlan told BusinessWest that naming a wind-turbine company Black Island is similar in many ways to a carmaker naming one of its products after a racetrack where it has enjoyed great success — and that has happened many times over the years, with the Dodge Daytona, Chrysler Sebring, and Pontiac LeMans, among others, coming to mind.
That’s how powerful a statement he believes the brand name makes, and how much it resonates with the company’s audience.
“Among the people who purchase small wind turbines, they know about the Black Island facility and respect what’s happened there,” he said. “In many instances, people have called them legendary wind turbines because they’re so anomalous in their reliability.”
Quinlan and Stein have been telling the Black Island story repeatedly over the past few years as they’ve taken their venture off the drawing board and into reality and worked to differentiate themselves from what they call “commodity small wind turbines.” For example, there was the presentation given before the Mass. Clean Energy Center (MCEC), which eventually gave the partners a $150,000 grant to help get the planned 1-kilowatt unit off the ground.
In addition to lessons learned in the climate of Antarctica, Quinlan and Stein told the MCEC — as they have other groups and BusinessWest — that, when it comes to small wind turbines, there is a lot of “junk” out there.
“In short, small wind turbines are disappointing customers,” Quinlan explained. “There is a strong need for a cost-effective, reliable, and productive alternative that is dependable.”
All those words could be used to describe the original HR-3, he went on, adding that the product had made a name for itself in Antarctica and other remote locations, so much so that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory launched a search for a company that would service existing models and create what amounts to the next generation of the product.
It focused its efforts on Stein and Quinlan, two veterans of what could be the called the wind-power movement, who are now partnering with Lawrence Mott, an engineer on the originally built HR-3, on the Black Island venture
Quinlan is the former associate director of the UMass Wind Energy Center and has been involved with wind power for more than 30 years. He worked at Southern California Edison and AeroVironment Inc. on wind-turbine testing and in-field troubleshooting, and worked with individual electric cooperatives and municipal utilities across the West on wind-power projects. In Washington, he served as a renewable-energy expert as a Congressional fellow, working for the ranking member of the House Science Committee, and then as ASME White House technology fellow supporting the presidential science advisor at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Stein, meanwhile, is a former senior research fellow at the UMass Wind Energy Center who also began work in the field in the early ’80s.
He started building wind turbines at Clark University, worked at Natural Power Inc., a wind-instrumentation company, and started his own wind-power company, Astral Wilcon, a manufacturer of 8- and 15-kilowatt residential-sized wind turbines. He worked briefly at MIT’s Fusion Energy Laboratory and at Yankee Environmental Systems, where he developed meteorology instrumentation.
With $180,000 in funding from the NREL, the partners eventually set up shop in Hadley and contracted with the agency to design and then test a modified HR-3 at Texas A&M University’s Alternative Energy Institute. During those tests, the turbine ran flawlessly, said Quinlan, adding that, since then, the company has produced a handful of the units and sold two to the Air Force.
It hopes to secure more orders at the Small Wind Conference in Stevens Point, Wis. later this month, he went on, adding that the partners project sales of perhaps 20 units this year.
The company also sells new and refurbished parts for the roughly 100 legacy HR-3 units still operating around world, mostly in remote locations such as mountaintop installations and offshore oil rigs, said Quinlan, adding that this component of the business provides a steady cash flow that makes the venture less of a business risk.
Looking forward, the partners are optimistic about scaling up production of the HR-3. Quinlan projects sales of the $39,000 turbines possibly reaching 100 units by next year.
“We’re targeting organizations that highly value reliability,” he said, adding that failures in the field can be extremely expensive and disruptive because getting service is so difficult and time-consuming. “This includes government agencies that have telecommunications networks, telecom companies that have microwave towers, oil and gas companies, and microgrids — small, self-contained utilities.”
Meanwhile, climate change may create business opportunities in another of the world’s most remote outposts — the Arctic, he explained.
“The Arctic will soon be navigable,” he told BusinessWest. “And there’s a lot of interest in setting up telecommunications systems there to support ship traffic, and that could create opportunities for us.”
The partners are also optimistic about development of the 1-kilowatt model now on the drawing board, with a prototype expected soon.
That product will compete with solar and other options for the business of those willing and able to use renewable energy to power their homes and businesses, said Stein, adding that, while solar has become an attractive option now that the price tag for such installations has come down in recent years, there is, and will continue to be, decent demand for wind power.
That’s because there are some places where solar is not a viable option, and where wind is, because it’s plentiful, said Quinlan.
“We’re looking at the windy states — the whole center of the country and the coasts,” he said, adding that preliminary projections forecast first-year sales of perhaps 1,000 units, and 5,000 annually within a few years.
Demand may be bolstered by growing need among businesses, government operations, schools, and other facilities to continue operating after a weather disaster or power outage, he went on, adding that small wind can provide that capability.
Gust in Time
When Quinlan and Stein were asked if they’ve been to Antarctica to see their product in action, they both enthusiastically said ‘no,’ although Stein admitted that it might be fun to go there — “for a few days, maybe, and at the right time of year.”
There are no plans for such an excursion, or to visit any of the other remote locations where the company’s turbines are in operation or will soon be put to use.
“We know what these units can do — we don’t need to go to the South Pole,” said Quinlan, adding that pictures from such outposts will suffice.
But Black Island will always be a big part of this company. As Quinlan said, it has been a proving ground, and because of that it is now a brand name — one that is expected to do big things in the world of small wind. n
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]