On the roof of Cleveland State University's plant-services building, four wind turbines hang off the side of a 20-by-25-foot cylinder. A large motorized truss atop the cylinder turns them toward the wind every few minutes. Another turbine spins slowly nearby. It's the control that will determine whether the setup is the forbearer of a renewable energy revolution or a $400,000 method for scaring birds away from water towers.
"Make sure you point out in your story how the control turbine isn't spinning," says Dr. Majid Rashidi, builder of this elaborate experiment.
The control turbine isn't spinning, but the other four, attached to the cylinder, are whirling away. "The cylinder basically amplifies the energy," Rashidi explains, "It makes the turbines happier."
And happy turbines produce more power.
A Clevelander for 31 years, Dr. Rashidi earned his Ph.D in mechanical engineering from Case Western Reserve University in 1987, and after a brief stint at NASA's Glenn Research Center (back when it was the Lewis Research Center), he began teaching at CSU. After 22 years of teaching, he's now chairman of the engineering technology department. Armed with $1.5 million of funding from the state of Ohio and the U.S. Department of Energy, he's been working hard on this prototype since 2005.
As wind hits the cylinder, it's forced around the sides, amplifying the wind velocity around it by roughly 1.8 times. A computer system measures wind direction and controls a motor that adjusts the turbines automatically to catch it. In theory, this should result in turbines that produce as much as four times more energy than normal. According to Rashidi, the turbines each generate about two kilowatts of electricity. Together, the prototype's four turbines generate enough electricity to power eight typical households.
Of course, it's still a theory. As the wind flies in from constantly changing directions, the system isn't always able to adjust itself quickly enough. There are awkward moments when the control is spinning wildly while the tower sits still, waiting to be reoriented. Rashidi admits there were still some kinks in the prototype's computer system, but project manager Jon Erdmann reported later that the problems had been sorted out.
"There's really no rulebook that says, 'This is how you chase the wind'," says Erdmann. "When you're inventing something, you have to expect there to be some kinks to work out."
With the tower in working order, the next step is to begin collecting a year of constant data to prove the concept's validity. "So far, I'm very pleased with the results," says Rashidi.
Rashidi's concept is hardly the first design to generate that level of wind-energy production. But what sets it apart from the dozens of other prototypes in the high-hype renewable-energy market is its potential in the urban environment. Most turbine designs, like the massive one in front of the Great Lakes Science Center, are impractical for city use because of their size. He calls this prototype a "design evolution" — more compact and affordable than previous turbines.
The sprawl of large buildings in cities usually cuts wind speed below what's necessary to create wind energy affordably. Plus, Rashidi's cylinder nearly doubles the velocity of the wind, making turbines effective in areas with much lower wind speed. The turbines are smaller too. Each turbine is about 7 feet in diameter — compared to the 88-foot turbine standing in front of the science center — allowing them to be installed on buildings without the danger and cost of other designs. Making it even more affordable, Rashidi points out that the cityscape is riddled with cylinders like water towers, chimneys and silos, just waiting to have his turbines strapped alongside them.
The idea isn't just to cover Cleveland in wind turbines, but to produce them here as well. Every part of the project was created in Cleveland except the turbines themselves, and there's no reason why they can't be made in town as well.
"I hope this creates some kind of economic impact in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio," says Rashidi.
There is talk that Rashidi is planning to install at least one more wind turbine in the city. According to Erdmann, the next project will be based on Rashidi's earlier design — a 15-foot wide spiraling tower with multiple turbines placed on it. Those involved aren't ready to make the location public yet but have described the site as "extremely high-profile."