On a mountaintop overlooking the small town of Tandil, Argentina there sits a 59-foot statue of Christ that watches over the city, erected to honor the place where Pope Francis first decided to become a priest. The statue is illuminated day and night by the power of the sun – harnessed by a SolarMill. It seems strangely fitting that the statue built for a pope who has declared climate change one of the biggest threats to our planet is lit by a renewable energy source.
Daniel Bates, founder and CEO of WindStream Technologies, manufacturer of the SolarMill, shares Pope Francis’s fears of the threats climate change poses to the planet. A self-described tree-hugger, Bates was inspired to transition into a career in sustainability by concern for the future of his children and eventual grandchildren.
So what exactly is a SolarMill? In short, SolarMills combine wind turbines and solar panels into one fully-
SolarMill installation in Tandil, Argentia
integrated hybrid energy solution. The model is scalable and customizable to fit the energy needs and natural resources available in a particular setting. As our fourth Featured Innovator, WindStream Technologies shared with us how its products work and some of the stories behind its most successful installations.
“We developed the technology using three vertical axis [wind] turbines that could be roof mounted so that they could then get around building code restrictions for height. The design was to have vertical axis turbines that could interconnect in series with one another. So essentially if you need more power, it’s just plug and play, it’s Legos for wind energy. You just plug up to an inverter and off you go. And it incorporates solar panels so the design was to be a hybrid, renewable energy solution that, again, was like building blocks for energy. If you have more sun, you can simply use more panels than turbines. If you live in a great wind zone, you can use more wind turbines than panels. It’s the choice of the consumer. And it all plugs together. It’s Ikea for renewable energy, if you will."
“The idea is: where you use renewables, deploy a hybrid. A hybrid gives the customer more stable consistent energy. If you’re off grid and storing to battery, it improves battery health by 30% because you don’t as deeply discharge the batteries at night when you’re typically powering down because you can charge at the same time,” said Bates.
This idea grew into the four other products WindStream sells, each a version of the original SolarMill that is optimized for different uses.
- The SolarMill ranges from 750 watts to 10-12 kilowatts in power, depending on the space and renewable resources that are available. At its core is a proprietary technology that combines vertical axis wind turbines and solar panels. It is a rooftop model, good for smaller installations on homes or small businesses. It has been used on government building and railway stations all over the world.
- The PowerMill is the next step up. Larger than a SolarMill but smaller than traditional utility-scale installations, it ranges from 15 kilowatts on up to 2.5 megawatts. It can produce a megawatt in about 30% less space than a solar-only farm. WindStream’s largest deployment is 2.5 megawatts of a utility-scale, grid-tied project located in Argentina.
- The TowerMill takes the core technology of vertical axis wind turbines and solar panels and runs them vertically up the side of a cell tower or a communication tower to offset the need for diesel generators at their base. “We have a customer now that’s deploying hundreds of these in Nairobi, Kenya. They are replacing power costs at roughly a dollar a kilowatt-hour with our solution that generates power at 7 cents. So that’s a really exciting opportunity for us. There are hundreds of thousands of off grid communication towers all over the world that we can now add hybrid renewable energy to,” said Bates.
- The MobileMill was co-developed with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It was created to reduce the deployment time for emergency relief first responders. Homeland Security typically takes 6-7 hours to set up command and control at an emergency site. The MobileMill “puts all of this technology into a trailer, rolls it out to the site, you press a button and the panels deploy, the turbines flip up and in under a minute, they have command and control operational. All the energy is stored to a battery with a small, fuel-driven generator so that in case there is no wind or solar at the emergency site, the generator keeps the battery topped off so there’s no interruption of service,” said Bates.
Bates initially intended to evangelize the use of hybrid energy in the U.S. urban marketplace but found much more success overseas. “It became very apparent that our best markets were emerging economies, where energy is inconsistent or non-existent or very expensive. By expensive, we say anything greater than 20-25 cents a kilowatt-hour,” said Bates.
WindStream now has installations all over the world, from slum rooftops in megacities in India, to churches in
The first SolarMill in Curaçao, an SM2-6P located at the House of Worship Church
Curaçao, to rural school houses in Africa, to the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki. What’s most interesting is the story behind each installation – and Bates will happily tell them all.
“We have a guy in Nigeria who bought a SolarMill, the smallest version we have, an SM1P, and put this thing up on stilts so it could capture the wind easily and have good access to solar power. He runs it down to a battery, that battery drives a fan. That’s all he’s trying to do - move air. But he moves air through a poultry farm, basically a chicken house. His chickens were dying of the heat, not being able to move that air because he had no power. Now he’s got a sustainable business selling poultry to his village with a renewable energy device. It’s one simple little SolarMill. I’m so proud of that installation. I’m as proud of that single 750 watt device as I am of the 2.5 megawatts in Argentina,” said Bates.
Another favorite is an installation that commissioned recently in Indiana by the largest customer in the world, the U.S. military. The military’s Net Zero initiative, which aims to lower the military’s carbon footprint and eventually bring it to carbon neutral, is paving the way for companies like WindStream to test innovative solutions in places they haven’t before. The installation at the National Guard Panther Base is a triple hybrid, combining wind, solar, and photovoltaic thermal.
Though WindStream has not yet been able to measure the collective impact of its installations, Bates is optimistic. “As we continue growing our business and continue aggregating all of this clean green energy we’re creating, I think eventually we’ll offset a huge amount of carbon.”
When asked what the future holds in terms of renewable energy, he sighs. “I wish I knew. I wish it was proliferating all over the world and we’d start removing coal fire and nuclear but it’s not moving as quickly as we’d like it to be… It’s a question of cost and awareness. All those factors have to be addressed. You have to go out to a community and say ‘Hey have you heard about renewables to begin with?’ Most people know about solar; nobody knows about hybrid.”
Over the last eight years, Bates and his team have been working zealously to change that. Educating consumers about climate change and the importance of renewable energy in the fight against it is easily their most difficult challenge.
“Look, this is the only planet we have. If we don’t do everything in our power to protect it, it won’t be here for the generations to come.”
You can learn more about WindStream Technologies from its website.