The Winds Never SetBy: Amos P. Eno
Posted on:06/03/2015 Updated:02/09/2016
The prevailing winds in the U.S. come out of the west, but one small company is proving that some of the most innovative technology for harvesting wind energy is coming from the country’s easternmost state.
Based in Westbrook, Maine, Pika Energy is a leader in residential wind turbines and wind-solar hybrid systems for off-grid and grid-tied customers. Co-founded in 2010 by Ben Polito and Joshua Kaufman, both of whom worked on early wind development projects such as Skystream, Pika was created to improve on those earlier projects in order to build “a future where the energy to power our lives is produced close to home by renewable sources and delivered through smart, scalable energy networks,” as stated on the company’s website.
The majority of Pika’s customers are residential, split approximately 50-50 between homes tied to the electrical grid and those off-grid. Given this customer base, Pika’s production priorities are, in a nutshell, affordability, reliability, versatility, efficiency and ease of use.
It all starts with the REbus, an “energy operating system” that helps building owners produce their own power from renewable energy sources such as solar and Pika’s wind turbine, use that energy to power the building, store it in battery banks or electric vehicles, or simply sell it back to the grid.
The current electrical grid runs on alternating current (AC), but today’s renewable energy sources produce direct current (DC), on which almost all modern appliances and computers also run. By running DC, REbus saves the capital cost of running multiple AC/DC conversions, and saves the energy that is lost in every conversion. (Our current electrical grid was designed in the late 19th century and hasn’t changed much to reflect the dominant use of DC in the digital age.)
Additionally, by transmitting at 380 volts of direct current, the REbus DC Microgrid can run longer wires (i.e. move the turbine farther from the customers house) with less energy loss.
Of course, the REbus just manages power it doesn’t produce any. That’s the job of Pika’s T701 Home Wind Turbine. Having worked on earlier wind turbine projects, Pika’s aforementioned founders were eager “to improve on the flaws they saw, particularly in blade design,” says Chip Means, Pika’s Director of Sales Development.
One of these improvements was the decision to use injection molding to create their glass-reinforced polymer blades. As Means explains, this process allows them to make blades that are “stronger, safer and lighter than the competition at a fraction of the cost.”
And Pika’s innovations go beyond the wind turbine blades; they are always designing ways to make their turbines easier to install and operate, and be more durable. They continue to increase the amount of pre-engineering they do to create what Means calls a ‘DIY-lite solution’ to make installation and operation as easy as possible.
For example, while Pika sells a tower specifically designed for its turbines, the turbines have flanges that allow them to be installed on many existing towers, and Pika is willing to send one of its employees out to help customers, or installation companies which haven’t worked with Pika before, with the installation process. “We go through all of the steps with the customer, including helping with the sometimes complicated permitting process,” says Means.
And Pika’s turbines are built to last: with a five-year warranty, it’s turbines are manufactured for 20 years of operation with no scheduled maintenance, and can theoretically run for another 30 years after that.
Most turbine towers are 90 to 100 feet tall, which may seem like a lot for a turbine with a 10 foot rotor diameter, but Means says the height is necessary to clear turbines or any turbulence caused by surrounding structures or natural features. In wide-open areas, tower height can be lower such as the 40 foot tower used by a customer on the Texas high plains.
Aware that the majority of Pika’s customers, especially the ones off-grid who produce all of their own energy, combine the turbine with solar in a hybrid system, the company created a PV Link that easily connects solar into the REbus system. The hybrid system offers several advantages; most notable is the ability of the wind turbine to smooth out the infamous “Duck Curve” of solar systems - solar productivity peaks in the middle of the day when demand is lowest, and plummets when demand is highest. In part, this problem is being solved with advanced battery storage techniques, but wind turbines are advantageous because they balance production by generating energy night and day, bluebird and overcast.
Although Pika has customers across the country, and even some projects in Canada and Chile, it still sells more turbines here in Maine than anywhere else, as well as large amounts in Alaska – where many live off-grid and electricity is expensive – and Texas. Means is working to expand distribution in the Plains States, which have some of the best wind energy potential in the world.
He is hoping that this process will be aided by state tax credits. Currently, customers throughout the country can claim the 30 percent federal tax credit for their Pika turbine, but only a few states – he named New York, Oregon and Maryland - offer similar tax credits, and none in the aforementioned plains state where they would be the most useful.
Pika’s new product developments are focused on creating a larger, 7.5 kw inverter (with grid-tied and off-grid options, of course), and continuing to work towards more commercial applications and larger turbines.
Means says that the bottom line is: “We want to make buildings more intelligent, turn them into providers of their own power.”
After writing this blog, a colleague asked what the impacts of Pika’s wind turbines are on bats and birds. I reached out to Means, and here is his response:
"The reputation of wind turbines in terms of their relationship with birds and bats is a reputation of large, utility-scale turbines, which tend to be about 400 feet or higher and enormous in blade sweep. Home wind turbines are not a significant threat to birds — house cats, buildings and cars are all much greater threats to birds and kill many, many more each year than home wind turbines will. Not to mention the impact of fossil fuel emissions on wildlife of all kinds!
Our turbine only has a 10-foot blade diameter and is typically mounted at 40-100 feet high. Migratory birds fly at much higher altitudes, so while they can be threatened by industrial turbines, ones of our size don’t threaten them at all. It’s certainly possible that a home wind turbine could strike a songbird, crow, or other such bird, and I’m sure it happens on occasion. Personally, I’ve never heard a customer testify to their turbine killing birds.
Attached is an independent study of the impact of home wind turbines on small birds and bats. The researchers used a larger turbine than ours, and in the course of their research, they only found one dead grackle, which didn’t appear to have been struck by the turbine.
The short answer is that the correlation between bird deaths and turbines is only an accurate concern at a much larger scale than ours."