Cleantech Meets Heavy Steel

I had a fascinating presentation today from John Robertson, managing director of BiFab, one of the first movers in offshore wind platform fabrications.  They just rolled off doing a 31 unit, 14 month project for Vattenfall’s 150 MW Ormonde project (which still counts as large in the offshore wind business), and built the original Beatrice prototype jackets.  They also sold 15% of the company to offshore wind developer SSE, essentially a vertical integration highlighting just how fragile the supply chain actually is.

There are three types of offshore mounting systems for wind 1) monopile (think big cylinder), 2) jacket, or 3) floating (of which the only prototyped system, though not yet at full scale,  is a spar (floating upright hollow cylinder).  Essentially those are in order of depth capability, with the 50-200 foot range the province of jackets, shallower water for monopiles, and at the 150 foot+ range a floating system is needed.

And right now we’re in the offshore wind’s infancy, still building one-offs.  At scale, this has to change. The wind turbine industry is already able to product final turbine assemblies within days to weeks. The rest of the supply chain for offshore is going to have to match that if the industry is to deliver the scale in the pipeline.

BiFab for example, builds jacket type mounting systems (basically four legged lattice tower) in Scotland for the offshore wind market in the North Sea.  Which sounds like a totally boring exercise.  Until you realize the following facts:

  • The offshore wind development pipeline in the UK is measured in multi-gigawatts, equaling 1,000+ plus platforms over the next 10 years.  Forget transmission constraints.  Just getting that much steel in the water fast enough at a low enough cost is an almost ungodly constraint.
  • The platforms are smaller, lighter, and have to cost much, much less, and be installed in a fraction of the time that the oil & gas industry has traditionally done.
  • Basically the fabrication shop has to learn to cookie cutter a product, not fabricate a series of one-off. Think order of magnitude three per week from a facility.  Nobody in the marine industry has done that since the Liberty Ships in World War II.  Nobody.  This is closer to manufacturing transformers or aircraft than it is shipbuilding or offshore construction except the end result has to in 50-150 feet of salt water.

I mean, when was the last time you heard a fabricator talking about manufacturing process technology, scale up and licensing designs.  They assemble steel.  Yet in offshore wind, that isn’t going to work.  Heavy steel has to meet cleantech for heavy steel to find new markets, and cleantech to reach scale.  It will be an interesting experience.

Rare Earth

by Richard T. Stuebi

Remember the white soul group on the Motown label, Rare Earth? If you do, sorry: this posting isn’t about them….

Nope, it’s about the fact that rare earth metals represent a unique problem — and opportunity — in the cleantech realm.

As PBS reported on “Newshour” a few months ago (transcript here), rare earth materials are important commodities essential to the production of many environmental technologies — from batteries to wind turbines to solar panels. Unfortunately, many of these materials are highly toxic and thus pose significant environmental hazards if mis-managed.

Regrettably, since most of the world’s endowment of these rare earth materials is found in China, the extraction of these materials from the ground is often done with little concern for environmental protection.

In addition, to the extent the world becomes reliant on technologies that depend upon rare earth materials, substantial geopolitical issues emerge as these elements become strategic inputs for economic activity. (In other words, replace “Saudi Arabia” with “China”, and “oil” with “rare earth metals”, and you get the idea.)

So, cleantech innovators would do well to find economical, widely-available, and environmentally-friendly substitutes for rare earth metals — or to re-engineer cleantech widgets so that they don’t require these scarce and nsaty materials. There’s a lot of money to be made, and a lot of headaches to be saved, if we don’t become stuck over the rare earth barrel.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

Inspired Windspire

by Cristina Foung
(writing from West Coast Green)

My favorite green product of the week: the Mariah Power Windspire

What is it?
The Mariah Power Windspire is a vertical axis “plug-n-produce wind power appliance.” It’s only 30 feet tall, with a two foot radius. It’s rated for winds up to 100 MPH and (based on initial testing) should produce about 2,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year in 12 MPH average winds.

Why is it better?
One of the coolest things about the Windspire is how quiet it is. Unlike horizontal axis turbines, the Windspire spins at only two or three times the speed of the wind. Mariah Power estimates that the Windspire has a maximum noise level of about 45 dB (compared with 65 to 100 dB levels of other turbines). To put that in context, 40 dB is like a quiet library.

It’s also really easy to install. The Windspire is on what they call a hinged monopole. All you need to do to get it up and running is pour the concrete base, assemble the unit, and pull the poll up vertically (apparently it’s been done with just a standard pick-up truck). This design saves you from having to use cranes…and that means you save money big time.

You do have to make sure that your Windspire is perfectly upright in order to achieve maximum efficiency and they don’t recommend roof mounting as the unit is heavy and does produce some vibration. But all in all, it sounds like a solid unit for residential application. Thus far, they’ve installed 30 to 40 units and are looking to ramp up production next month to 100 units and hopefully come November, they’ll be rolling 500 off the line every month.

Where can you find it?
You can reserve a Windspire for $4,995 from Mariah Power. Or if you’re interested in learning more (and you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area), stop by their booth at West Coast Green tomorrow to check out some videos and a fun little model.

Besides her green products column on Cleantech Blog, Cristina is a passionate advocate for green living at the Green Home Huddle at, which focuses on electric cars, energy efficient appliances, and other green products.

The Answer May Be Blowing in the Wind

by Cristina Foung

My favorite green product of the week: Southwest Windpower Skystream 3.7 Wind Turbine

What is it?
The Skystream 3.7 is a residential wind generator that hooks into grid-tied homes. It has an estimated energy production of 400 kWh per month (at 12 MPH or 5.4 m/s). Its rotor measures 12 feet and towers are available ranging from 34 to 70 feet.

Why is it better?
The wind industry, ranging from offshore wind projects to residential turbines, has been steadily growing. Southwest Windpower manufactures the Skystream 3.7 which is the first all-inclusive wind generator with controls and an inverter built right in.

For the average single family home, it can produce about half of all electricity needs (or course that depends both on how much electricity you use and the average wind speeds in your area). But that’s not too shabby in terms of reducing your carbon footprint.

I also hear Skystreams are quiet, easy to install (or easy to work with dealers to get them installed), run in very low winds, and are easy to maintain. All good things, for sure. I can’t wait to stop by Robin Wilson’s house in San Francisco to see hers in action.

Where can you find it?
Southwest Windpower has a network of dealers worldwide that retail the Skystream 3.7. See the website for information on where to buy. A complete ready-to-install package with a 34 foot tower costs $8,725.00.

Besides her green products column on Cleantech Blog, Cristina is a passionate advocate for green living at the Green Home Huddle at, which focuses on electric cars, energy efficient appliances, and other green products.