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Is Small Windmill Design the Answer?

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Native Americans in Michigan and the USDA want to bring windmills to everybody, not just farmers and utility companies. They’re backing a Michigan man whose design could lead to a slower, smaller, cheaper and better windmill. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus sat in on a meeting near Nashville in Barry County.

Potawatomi Indians native land stretches across the southern part of the lower peninsula. A new kind of windmill could be built on it.

“Our goal is placing these in strategic spots that the average citizen in the community can look at it and say you know what? I can pay for that to have it our at my house, on my small farm or golf course or career center that it’s actually going to return and pay for itself.”

Orvin Moore is Chairman of the Potawatomi Resource Conservation and Development Council. He met with a dozen officials from schools and colleges in the Kalamazoo Battle Creek area. As a group, they’re asking the federal government for millions of dollars for a windmill project.

“Remember back a few years ago when they started building silos on farms and everyone said how we gonna fill them and maintain them but you know what? It happened.”

Moore also says: stand next to a silo and feel how windy it is. David Ciolek says the same thing.

“It’s a fallacy to think that buildings hurt you. If designed properly they will work for you.”

Ciolek grew up on a farm in Saginaw County. He’s made a living the last 35 years, rebuilding barns around the country. He even works on historic buildings in New York City where he lives.

“That’s not just me talking, Mayor Bloomberg of the City of New York wants to bring windmills to their buildings. They are standing right there with high heights and the ability to direct wind where you want to go. You can double or triple or quadruple the amount of energy you’re sending to that windmill if it’s designed right. So rethink what’s going on.”

Ciolek is a wind energy entrepreneur. He says farmers originally had barns for threshing grain. Not storing hay. If you prop barn doors open you’ll feel the wind blow inside. I saw this in the barn outside Lansing where he has a prototype windmill. Ciolek doesn’t want competitors near it until he secures his own funding. He’s hoping schools and the Potawatomis will get the process started.

“In the past it’s always been slow moving blades can not produce electricity. You need high turning blades to do that. That we believe we have solved the problem to that. That we believe the patent is about.”

Ciolek is waiting for a patent to be approved on his windmill design. It’s about 10 feet in diameter and has as many as 24 blades. Michigan currently has about 80 commercial windmills. Most are about 400 feet tall. Ciolek says the big windmills only make electricity in 12-30 mile an hour winds. They’ll break apart if the wind’s too strong and make nothing if the wind’s too weak. So they’re made to turn off. Big windmills also cost a couple million dollars a piece. The average guy won’t be buying one.

“The reason a lot of our big utilities have gone to the large generator is just the maintenance on them. It’s easier to maintain one large unit than 500 small units.”

Jim Tenier works for Post Gardens in Battle Creek. He likes Ciolek’s idea but asks hard questions.

“Maintenance is more of a concern on these small generating units when they’re out there in the field. I can see that being the big limitation. Everybody gets these generators out in their yards and then five years down the road they start breaking down and people realize they can’t afford to fix them.”

Ciolek, the entrepreneur, says the maintenance problem can be over come.

“I want a show of hands here how many people can change the transmission in their car. How many people here can change the oil in their car? The automobile is a much more sophisticated piece of equipment than this is by tenfold. But we don’t seem to stop making them and there’s a lot of jobs available cleaning them. That’s three feet off the ground too versus 80 feet in the air. No one’s gonna be an expert in maintaining those devices in the air and if they break down it makes it look real bad if a few break down and don’t get put back into service again. It can kill an industry real fast by not having the forward thinking of what it’s gonna cost to keep it running.”

The exchange keeps going.

“I think a lot more people have been killed in automobiles than there will be in windmills. I’m not against the product. What I want to make sure is if we get into something it’s not gonna be something that people give up because they can’t keep it working.”

Alternative energy start ups are like the dozens of car companies in Michigan 100 years ago. There’s a mad rush on to find the technology everybody can use. Will ancient technology be popular again? Will one guy fire a silver bullet? Or will progress come in fits and starts. For Michigan Now I’m Chris McCarus.

Is Small Windmill Design the Answer

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