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Posted on Thu, May 27, 2010 : 6:02 a.m.

Wind turbine problems create opportunity for Ann Arbor region's alternative energy sector

By Nathan Bomey

The Ann Arbor region’s nascent wind energy sector is positioned to help wind turbine manufacturers and utility operators address a key industry problem: improving the performance and reliability of turbines and wind farms.

To become a competitive option for electricity companies, wind companies need to improve the efficiency of turbines that are known for breaking down as soon as six years after initial installation.

Wind Turbine Blades.JPG

The inefficiency of traditional wind turbines is offering opportunity to companies in the Ann Arbor area.

Photo courtesy of Business Wire

“What we really want to see is Michigan being the engineering leader in the wind industry,” said Marc Wiseman, vice president for clean energy for engineering firm Ricardo Inc., whose North American corporate headquarters is in Van Buren Township.

Several startup companies in the Ann Arbor area and other established engineering firms are offering consulting services to the wind industry.

Ricardo announced this week that it was partnering with Troy-based engineering firm LMS International to form the North American Wind Energy Innovation and Development Center.

Through the joint initiative, engineers at both companies will offer a variety of services to wind turbine makers, government groups and utility companies - including modeling, simulation, testing, development and parts design.

Local companies have identified market opportunity for wind turbine engineering services, in large part because of the unreliability of wind gearboxes and turbine blades.

“It’s a combination of getting the cost down and increasing the performance,” said Loch McCabe, president of Ann Arbor-based alternative energy consultancy Shepherd Advisors. “Given relatively low gas prices, given the decrease in demand for electricity and given the lack of cohesive national policy around renewable energy, all of this is increasing the pressure upon traditional manufacturers to reduce both capital cost and operating cost.”

Wiseman said turbines need to operate efficiently for 20 years to be cost competitive but that many wind farm operators are reporting “major system failures” within 6 to 10 years.

“We really need to get the reliability up,” Wiseman said.

The questionable dependability of traditional wind technology is offering opportunity to startups like Canton Township-based Danotek Motion Technologies and Ann Arbor-based Accio Energy.

Danotek believes its permanent magnet generator technology can help wind turbines operate more efficiently and with less regular maintenance. The company estimates that its technology can increase a wind turbine’s efficiency by 15 percent, producing $1 million in additional revenue apiece.

Danotek has attracted about $21 million in venture capital from reputable investors such as California-based Khosla Ventures. The firm is using the funds to transition into production and recently hired a new CEO, Don Naab. Danotek grew from about 20 employees a year ago to 40 now.

“When you look at where wind is going and the technology lead that I think Danotek has, that was the attraction,” said Naab, who took over as CEO for founder Dan Gizaw, now the chief technical officer. “It’s a small company today with tons of opportunity and they’re at the cusp of a technology that I believe is going to be adapted by, if not all, most of the wind turbine manufacturers across the globe.”

The inefficiency of traditional wind turbines offers opportunity for new wind energy technologies, as well. Accio Energy is developing a device that can generate electricity without moving parts.

Other local firms are focusing their efforts on helping wind companies make better decisions about where to locate wind farms and improve performance of traditional wind turbines:

--OptoAtmospherics, a spinoff of Pittsfield Township-based Michigan Aerospace, is commercializing a laser-based system that uses software to improve wind turbine performance.

--Ann Arbor-based FlexSys, which spun out of the University of Michigan in 2000, offers software-based modeling to improve wind turbine blade design.

--Consultants at Pittsfield Township-based Analytical Design Service Corp. are offering software-based consulting services to the wind industry.

--Orisol Energy, a Spanish firm that established its American headquarters at the Pittsfield Township offices of sister company Aernnova Engineering, is developing utility-scale wind and solar energy projects.

Startups seeking to introduce new technologies into the market are increasingly turning to displaced automotive engineers, experts said.

“Generally speaking, we’re increasingly focused on performance enhancement and cost reduction, and those are key skills that have been absolutely drilled into automotive engineers,” McCabe said. “There is a general sense that automotive engineers think in the right direction.”

David Young, general manager of LMS North America, said the “similarities between the types of engineering” required for the wind and auto industries could make for a smooth transition.

McCabe cautioned, though, that many wind energy startups need engineers that thrive in an entrepreneurial environment.

“For the most part, these are growth-oriented, very entrepreneurial firms that demand a tremendous amount from their teams in terms of dedication and being willing to do more than just the job,” he said. “There’s definitely a learning curve that has to happen.”

Contact's Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's newsletters.



Thu, May 27, 2010 : 6:55 p.m.

@Plubius - Sorry, we don't use those numbers, except when we want to compare the subsidized and tax breaks in the costs and we know they are firm over the life of the plant. We use something way more complex to do this. Having participated in this study, there are all sorts of bias items that the authors put in the study and any other study that creates a simple table has a set of bias built in that you need to understand. These are post subsidy California prices, and there is no promise the subsidy will survive. Also the assumption in the numbers was that wind and solar would require zero maintenance and that the utility would be responsible for the collector for both. I would be happy to buy wind power from you in Michigan at these prices, but you would declare bankrupcy if you sold it to me at these prices.


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 6:46 p.m.

The issues with wind and wind turbines are: 1) Variability of the source (e.g. wind). This means wind is "non-dispatchable" in utility terms and can not be relied on to replace either baseload or peak generation. What it does is displace conventional generation when the wind is blowing 2) Issues in power quality generated by wind farms, this is due to a number of issues and there are opportunities to solve these problems that could make someone money. 3) The use of balsa in most blades, a new core material for blades needs to be developed. Again an opportunity for someone. 4) Most conventional wind mills run between 10 and 20 meters per second of wind, this means that in good locations the wind mills make power about 34 percent of the time. Changing the ability of large wind machines to make power over a wider range of wind speeds is a opportunity that is open to solution 5) creating wind mills that will make power in low speed wind areas and survive storms in those areas is another opportunity. 6) Figuring out how to store electricity in a low cost manner, not just for wind or solar, but lots of reasons. 7) Better small scale wind mills for local generation, all of the real money has been spent on the 2.5 MW and other large wind machines and not on the 1KW and 5KW machines. Low cost small wind could be competative for a home owner since they pay the retail price not the energy price for delivered electricity 8) Forecasting software that can be accurate at least 3 to 5 minutes in advance, so system operators can ramp up or down other generation to balance wind effectively. 9) Wind Diagnostic sensors and software - finding pending failures and letting the maintenance team know. There are 1000's of wind mills that would take retrofits of this sort of thing. 10) Bird and Bat warning (scaring) systems - reducing loss of wildlife from the wind mills 11) better trailing edges on wind mill blades to reduce the "wind Hammer" that the machine generates 12) Variable blade forms that can morph based on wind speed to be as efficient as possible 13) Blade stress crack inspection techniques that can be used when the machine is in operation 14) Better tower design that proves strength with less material and cost 15) A technique for sending blades to the site in parts (e.g. top and bottom half) to reduce oversize load issues and allow even larger machines to be built ARPA-E has money in the GRIDS program for some of these and there are opportunities with VC if you can get some of these right.

Anonymous Due to Bigotry

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 2:59 p.m.

Fusion power is estimated to be a cheap as coal. How many years off from a practical plant reactor who knows, but they've already been able to get more energy out of a sustained reaction than is put into it so it's at least working in the lab right now at some level of (in)efficiency. My naive guess is that before we get 150MWh worth of wind turbines built people will already be building fusion plants. Honestly though, coal is pretty clean these days if you don't consider CO2 a "pollutant". Just because it sounds dirty doesn't mean it is.

Andrew Brix

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 2:15 p.m.

A couple of facts to chew on regarding wind resource potential in Michigan... @Rod J: The map you linked to is at 50m, whereas turbines today have hub heights of 80 or 100m. US DOE estimates Michigan's 80m wind potential at 169,221 million kWh annually: US DOE (again) reports Michigan's total 2005 electricity consumption at 110,445 million kWh: Leaving aside for a moment issues of dispatchability, there is enough wind in Michigan to generate more than our total electricity needs. And all this is without considering the considerable offshore wind potential in the Great Lakes.

Rod Johnson

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 12:40 p.m.

Huh? You can't see Lake Erie from the Pointes. Grosse Ile maybe?

Nathan Bomey

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 12:35 p.m.

@Carl Duncan and @Mick52, research generally shows that the concept of wind turbines being a significant threat to birds is largely a myth. In reality, cars and buildings kill many more birds. A few links:


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 12:24 p.m.

Kind of on the fence with this but I am aware wind turbines have been around for a long time. If they were profitable would they not be more prominent? I also share the concern Carl Duncan brought up, the blades hitting birds. Where is PETA on this? Also, an article was published a few weeks ago that Canada is planning three large areas of turbines on the coast of Lake Erie and it has ruffled some feathers (no pun intended) regarding ruining the view of the Gross Points. This brings up the question of do we want to put these things on our beautiful coast lines? If they are only supplemental sources, they seem to be too expensive and unreliable to be worth the effort.

Anonymous Due to Bigotry

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 12:13 p.m.

Funny but when I first read that headline I thought it said "Ann Arbor religion's alternative energy".

Rod Johnson

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 12:07 p.m.

Here's another map for you: As you can see, Michigan is rated mostly poor to marginal in terms of available wind energy. There are a couple small areas on the western lakeshores that are a little better. That doesn't mean wind isn't a feasible technology, but I don't think it will amount to much in Michigan. In general we are an energy poor state and will likely always be a net energy importer, the Antrim Shale notwithstanding.


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 11:53 a.m.

For Europhiles. An interesting article on Europe's experience with windpower.

Carl Duncan

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 11:48 a.m.

The green types never mention how many birds get decimated by those big fiber glass blades whirling around. I'm not a fan of seagulls or canadian geese. But wouldn't it stand to reason that hawks, falcons, and eagles would be swatted out of the sky as well?


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 10:07 a.m.

Interesting article on shale gase that I found.


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 10:01 a.m.

Some other data on cost Coal is by far the cheapest. Natural Gas Combined Cycle is competitive. Wind is 30-50% more expensive than natural gas. Nuclear (to COTS plan)[12] 040 4070 Nuclear (to suit site; typical)[12] 040 75105 Coal 028 2838 Coal: IGCC + CCS 053 5398 Coal: supercritical pulverized + CCS 064 64106 Open-cycle Gas Turbine 101 101 Hot fractured rocks 089 89 Gas: combined cycle 037 3754 Gas: combined cycle + CCS 053 5393 Small Hydro power 055 55 Wind power: high capacity factor 055 75 Solar thermal 085 85 Biomass 088 88 Photovoltaics 120 120


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 9:49 a.m.

All: Please stop talking nonsense and speak to actual data! This site,, presents DATA regarding the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) for a variety of technologies. For those who do not work in this space (which sounds like most commenters), this is THE metric which is used to compare different means of electricity production. If you look at these data, you will see that wind is no more expensive than other means of production. You will also note that the data for gas speaks to 'combined cycle', which has the effect of lowering the LCOE as revenue is generated from waste heat. If the plant location is such that the waste heat cannot be sold, the LCOE for gas goes up. Also, read the footnote which indicates that the cost for gas used in the model is artificially low. The two issues with wind are 1) reliability and 2) transmission. The former is an engineering problem and will be solved. The latter is an engineering, economic, and politic problem and is far more challenging to address.


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 8:41 a.m.

@BobbyJohn: the article quotes Wiseman as wanting to "see Michigan being the ENGINEERING leader in the wind industry". It doesn't say that the wind farms would actually be located here.

Wayne Appleyard

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 8:41 a.m.

Improving efficiency, reliability and longevity is always a good goal. By quoting people who are trying to make money consulting on this issue with wind turbines and including "Wind Turbine Problems" in the title, implies that wind turbines are unreliable, resulting in the comments on using natural gas instead. If you had googled "wind turbine reliability" you would have found data that shows that wind turbines/farms have a 96.4% mean "availability" (see which is similar to nuclear and coal plants. I hope your readers were not missled, and perhaps a little more research and a more careful titling is in order??

Nathan Bomey

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 8:03 a.m.

@A2Citizen, I altered the description of Orisol to more accurately reflect their business strategy. However, the descriptions for the rest should be accurate. Note that this article is not meant to provide a comprehensive description of the breadth of these businesses' activities. Ricardo, for example, provides a variety of engineering services to the auto industry. Wind is a small piece of its business. But this story is designed to highlight several companies that are trying to take advantage of trends in the wind industry. Thanks for reading.


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 7:47 a.m.

Wind power is cost effective if 2 conditions are met. One is reliability which is a serious problem currently. Over time, I am sure this problem will be solved. The other condition is average wind speed. Each mph increase in avg. wind speed Greatly increases the energy obtained from the wind. Unfortunately, the average wind speed in most of Michigan is inadequate to be even close to cost effective at this time. The thumb and the west coast of Michigan are decent. The VA hospital put up a wind turbine on top of its building. It creates so little electricity, that even if wasn't always breaking down all the time, it would have a payback time of around a 100 years. One of the most difficult issues w/ wind power, is the fact that the areas that generate good wind energy are a long way from transmission lines, so this adds alot of cost and environmental havoc.


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 7:41 a.m.

Looks to me that this is a promising technology in it's early stages. I'm sure that once some of our brightest minds apply their thinking to the problems involved, wind power will be able to compete with what we have now. My only concern is that we develop the technology, but China builds them. The wind will not stop blowing.


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 7:27 a.m.

Natural gas is the preferred fossil fuel for Electric power. While 50% of the U.S. Electrical output is coal based, there is an increase in natural gas usage. We can debate clean versus dirty but most rational people view the shift to natural gas as a good thing. With access to vast shale deposits this relatively clean and cheap fossil fuel will be used because it is better than coal and cheaper than wind. Wind power costs to much and is still a very tiny part of the nation's electrical output.


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 7:21 a.m.

We definitely need to put a price on CO2 gas Al Gore needs the money for his mansions and private jet


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 7:07 a.m.

The descriptions of a lot of these companies are wrong. Please go to their individual websites to really learn about what they are doing.

Phillip Farber

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 7:06 a.m.

@braggslaw Shale gas in not clean. It is only less dirty than coal and oil. There is no clean hydrocarbon based fuel. Furthermore, natural gas is cheap only as long as we fail to put a price on CO2 pollution. Wind subsidies? Let's not even talk about the subsidies we give to Big Oil. @chimarathon Wind power is not intended to supply base load generation. It is a replacement for peak load generation that uses dirty technologies.

Hot Sam

Thu, May 27, 2010 : 6:37 a.m.

"""What happens when there is no wind? """ As long as we have politicians, we will have wind...


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 6:19 a.m.

What happens when there is no wind?


Thu, May 27, 2010 : 6:02 a.m.

Easily accessible and cheap shale gas is going to hamper wind and solar energy development (not to mention liquid methane from the middle east). Michigan sits on one of the largest shale gas deposits in the country and the return on investment will be positive as opposed to subsidizing wind farms. The cheap and relatively clean shale gas will make it difficult to convince people to subsidize wind and solar.