Innovation

Turbines to harvest power from city ‘wind tunnels’

A mini wind turbine that can cope with gusts from any direction is being pitched at windy Wellington, though it's still a way off being produced, as Eloise Gibson reports.

Windy cities like Wellington are the intended destination for a newly-devised wind turbine that has won a major innovation award.

Two young inventors from Chile and Kenya, studying at Lancaster University, have won the $55,000 international James Dyson Award for a spinning-ball design that's designed to harvest energy from the wind tunnel effect created by tall buildings.

The James Dyson Foundation took the opportunity to remind the world of Wellington's status as the world's windiest city. But as cities get taller, they also get windier, meaning Wellington has growing competition from cities with proliferating skyscrapers.

The 25cm sphere can cope with random breezes blowing from any side, turning the turbine and driving a generator that delivers electricity to the building it's attached to or to the electricity grid. The ability to cope with being buffeted from anywhere is important in high-rise cities, where wind gets trapped and dragged down to the street before shooting up again.

Wellington mayor Justin Lester said the pair were more than welcome to visit Wellington to test the design. “We have some highly productive wind energy – if it could work for building owners economically and connect to the grid, we would embrace it, though we’re mindful that it’s new technology and needs proving.”

Designers Nicolas Orellana and Yaseen Noorani say they were inspired by a less-than-successful design feature of NASA's Mars tumbleweed rover, an inflatable ball about as high as a tall person that was designed to bounce and roll like tumbleweed across Mars’ surface. The Tumbleweed didn't cope well with cross-winds, inspiring the young designers to do better. The annual competition, which is funded by inventor James Dyson's charity, is open to university-level design and engineering students and recent graduates from 27 countries, including New Zealand. Winners keep the intellectual property in their designs as well as the prize money.

As for whether the O-Wind Turbine, as it's been named, could work in Wellington, New Zealand green building and renewable energy advocates were cautiously optimistic. So far small-scale solar has been more popular than small wind turbines, especially as battery storage for solar has become more affordable and viable.

Andrea Davison, the technical manager of special projects with the Green Building Council, said the council always encourages buildings to first reduce their demand for energy using insulation and good windows and other good design elements, rather than "tacking on" renewable energy generation to a wasteful building. But harvesting New Zealand's abundant renewable resources to meet the remaining demand from buildings was always a good idea, she said. "We like to see innovation like this. What's interesting about this as opposed to solar is that New Zealand's peak energy load is not necessarily in the summer for air conditioning, like in Australia, it's more on winter evenings and the wind blows regardless of sun and heat. We would certainly recognise technology like this to reduce demand on the power grid when we certify (green) buildings."

Kristin Gillies from the Sustainable Energy Association of New Zealand said any new development in renewable energy that can be generated on the spot was "hugely positive" for New Zealand whether it was wind or solar. "It increases the security of supply and decreases distribution costs, and wind can have a different timing versus solar so it could be quite complementary."

Small-scale renewable generation was rare on buildings currently because most buildings were older, he said, but solar was becoming more common in new builds. Lester wasn’t aware of anyone using wind energy on a commercial building currently.

The James Dyson award for New Zealand was won by 23-year-old Massey University industrial design graduate Holly Wright, who created a more responsive, sensory saddle for horse riders with disabilities. Her award was announced on September 5 but she was pipped today for the international prize by the wind turbine design team. 

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