In a Requiem for Helix Wind, Critics Come to Bury More Than Praise

Back in May, I noted that Sauer Energy of Newbury Park, CA, had acquired the assets from San Diego’s defunct Helix Wind, which ceased operations at the end of 2010 with an accumulated deficit of nearly $42 million. During its three years in the sun, Helix attracted widespread attention for the iconic design of its helical-shaped vertical axis wind turbines.

Now environmental journalist Brian Clark Howard has written a kind of requiem for Helix Wind on National Geographic’s Daily News website. In Howard’s report, critics air their grievances about vertical axis wind turbines in general, and Helix Wind in particular.

Among the fiercest critics is Kenneth Morgan, a Helix Wind co-founder “whose acrimonious split from the company ended in litigation,” according to Howard. In Howard’s report, Morgan criticizes his former coworkers for “indiscriminately selling turbines to anyone without any feedback or guidance.” Howard also reports that Morgan said his experience at Helix left him feeling “betrayed” and, “It essentially destroyed the company.”

Acrimonious litigation can do that to a startup. Former Helix chairman and CEO Scott Weinbrandt declined to comment in the article. I’ve reached out to Weinbrandt for his perspective as well.

Howard reports that unlike conventional horizontal axis wind turbines, the vertical axis turbines (also known as Savonius turbines) do not generate lift—so they can go no faster than the wind itself. “That’s a hindrance,” Clark writes, “because, in general, the faster the blades turn, the more energy a turbine can harvest from the wind.” As a result, such vertical axis turbines operate at a much lower efficiency for generating power.

Weinbrandt acknowledged this when I profiled the company in 2009. He told me the helical turbines looked so much like spinning sculptures that some customers bought them primarily for the aesthetics. He also told me an advantage of the helical design is its ability to operate at high torque in lower wind speeds and continuing to function in high winds. His strategy was to target urban residential and commercial customers. Yet another critic in Howard’s article faulted Helix for promoting such rooftop installations.

As Howard reports, small wind turbine designer Hugh Piggott wrote in a blog post that wind turbulence churning across rooftops make them a poor site for wind turbines. “Vertical axis designs and rooftop siting are foolish ideas that have cost a lot of people a lot of grief and brought the small wind industry into unnecessary disrepute,” Piggott wrote. He calls the Helix turbine “a nice ornament” but overpriced at $17,500.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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