While the politicians argue away about Brexit, and the polar ice caps melt, might the switch away from fossil fuels happen anyway? Having read Chris Goodall’s excellent book “The Switch” on this subject over the summer, I recently met one of the people behind the technology that could make this optimistic hope a reality.
It was on a sunny and blustery November day that I arrived at a workshop in an industrial estate on the edge of the North Wessex Downs. I had come here to visit Giles Rodway, managing director of Spinetic. Across four floors, the company’s five employees, are developing an ultra-low cost system for harvesting wind energy at a community scale. They have engineered a new design of wind turbine in the form of a panel, so light you can pick it up with one hand, and almost as easy to construct and commission as a piece of flat-pack furniture.
In recent years, there has been a huge increase in the amount of energy generated from solar power thanks to the falling price of solar panels and their easy installation. The number of community level solar arrays has soared. However, there are many locations around the world where there is much more wind than there is sun. Unlike solar panels, wind turbines tend to be too big, complex and expensive to be viable at a small-scale. The resource of the wind remains untapped.
This is the gap in the market which Giles is hoping to fill. Giles worked for many years in the oil and automotive industry but missed hands-on engineering, as his roles became increasingly bureaucratic. The idea of using wind turbines in novel configurations struck him as worth pursuing and so he decided to quit the corporate life and become an entrepreneur. Giles believes that Spinetic’s easily constructed, light-weight turbine arrays will work well alongside solar panels when the sun stops shining. Research shows that locations with less sun often have more wind, or at least the wind picks up when the sun goes in. Wind turbines and solar panels are the perfect renewable energy partnership.
Around their Wiltshire workshop, the Spinetic team is developing appropriate manufacturing processes so that “micro wind turbine factories” can be easily set up in any location. Giles showed me prototype generators, laser cutters, presses to bend the aluminium sheets and machinery to rivet the turbine parts together. The aim is that, with suitable training, people in remote and developing world locations could construct and install a Spinetic “turbine fence”, and start generating power from the wind.
Giles is often found at a work bench himself and cares deeply that their product is as effective as possible. I loved the small-scale wind tunnel used for testing 3D printed turbine designs. Beside it was a stack of the tried and discarded mini-turbines in different shapes and colours, at least 40 of them. Evidence that their product is one of the most efficient.
Although funding for renewables has been inconsistent over the years, Giles remains optimistic about the future. “Even Donald Trump cannot stop the transition to renewable energy, the momentum is already too great,” he told me. I hope he’s right, for all our sakes.