Homemade Wind Power

 Every day, the United States consumes 20.77 million barrels of oil and produces 7.9 million--that's a 12-million-barrel gap. The EU doesn't fare much better, and to boot, some of the largest oilfields in the Middle East seem to be in decline. No wonder that even the most conservative politicians--including the president himself--have recently joined environmentalists in the call for the development of alternative energy sources.

Although they're more popular in Europe, "wind farms" are cropping up around the U.S., producing electricity, even if not in generous amounts. Domestically, our total wind capacity stood at 6,740 megawatts at the end of 2004, with large-scale wind turbine arrays operating in 25 states and others on the drawing board. (Among the latter is a cluster proposed for the waters of Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod, a project that--in one of those ironic "Not in my backyard" twists--is being fiercely opposed by environmentalists normally in favor of green energy.) The American Wind Energy Association is predicting 100,000 MW generated in the U.S. by 2020.

That's usually the only way we think about wind-generated power, as the megawatt output from acres of tall towers with slowly turning, rarely seen blades, somewhere in the desert or on a remote mountaintop.

But is wind power something that could become feasible on an individual home basis? Will you ever see turbines mounted on the roofs of your town? The answer, surprisingly, may be yes, if a small company in the president's home state has anything to say about it.

Sometime this month, Plano, Texas-based Mag-Wind Co. LLC will install the first of its five pre-production model rooftop turbines. The customer: Fort Worth real estate developer Ross Perot, Jr., who is putting one atop his office building in downtown Dallas.

Mag-Wind units can generate between 900 and 2,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month (depending, naturally, on the wind), enough to power an average household. They are built to a patented design, which features no gears. A platform of aluminum sails floats on magnets, and the platform's base rotates around a stabilizing, vertically fixed shaft. A circle of magnets spins past a sequence of coils to generate the electricity.

The device, invented by Canadians Jim Rowan and Tom Priest Brown, measures four feet square, weighs 250 pounds, and will retail for $6,599. Installed cost will be around twice that. Projected useful life is approximately two decades, and Mag-Wind estimates that homeowners will earn back their investment in 5-7 years.

According to Rowan, the two relocated to the States because of the business climate. "In Texas," he says, "you present an idea and they just roll up their sleeves and get to work. That's why we're here and not in Ontario."

Production of the units begins in March. Mag-Wind will sell exclusively through volume homebuilders, distributors of renewable energy products, and utility power companies, which will also handle installation and hook-ups to local grids.

Perot may be buying himself the first small, commercially produced wind generator in North America, according to Cory Lowe of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit energy consultant. "This is kind of new territory," he says. "If it does all they claim it will do, the potential could be there. Generating electricity on a smaller scale can be profitable for both the energy producer and the customer."

Adds Austin contractor Ray Tonjes, chairman of the greenbuilding subcommittee of the National Association of Homebuilders: "I hate to use the word revolutionary, but [Mag-Wind] really is. It promises to be a very cost-effective alternative to solar, and actually in some applications the two probably would be used together."

The physical construction will be done by Vector Systems of Richardson, Texas, a company that is a 5% stakeholder in Mag-Wind. Vector, which makes custom fluid-processing systems, is investing heavily in a new, larger plant, partly because of its contract to build 4,000 Mag-Wind units in 2006. All have been placed, with 1,700 going to a Canadian distributor and the balance to some unidentified U.S. homebuilders. So if you want one, you may have to wait a while.

Nor will our investor readers find any prospects here, at least for now. Both Mag-Wind and Vector Systems are privately held. Still, the story may warrant keeping a casual eye on. There's no telling when companies with growth prospects like these might choose to either go public, or seek to raise cash through private placements.

In any case, someday you just may listen to that breeze blowing through the maples in your front yard and think of all the money you're not spending on oil.

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Posted 02-14-2006 9:37 PM by Doug Casey
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