Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Rooftop Wind Power Might Take off by Using Key Principle of Flight

Energy
Rooftop Wind Power Might Take off by Using Key Principle of Flight
An artist's rendering of AeroMINES along the edge of a roof and combined with solar arrays. Sandia National Laboratories

By Andrea Thompson

Solar panels perched on the roofs of houses and other buildings are an increasingly common sight in the U.S., but rooftop wind systems have never caught on. Past efforts to scale down the towering turbines that generate wind power to something that might sit on a home have been plagued by too many technical problems to make such devices practical. Now, however, a new design could circumvent those issues by harnessing the same principle that creates lift for airplane wings.


Overall, electricity generated by renewable sources has grown in the U.S. in recent years, and wind power has been a major driver of that trend. It accounts for more than 40 percent of electricity from renewables in the U.S. (though only 7 percent of all electricity production). Unlike solar energy cells, which are limited to collecting energy during daylight hours, wind turbines can run all night in any place with the right conditions—namely, in open plains or gentle hills with consistently sufficient wind speeds. But in addition to those requirements, large turbines need open space, which is not always available near towns and sprawling cities. Installing rooftop wind systems on homes and city buildings could help harness more of this resource.

When it comes to wind power, size matters. The amount of energy an individual turbine can generate is proportional to the area its blades sweep—so devices that are small enough to fit on a roof are less powerful. "What's kept distributed wind from being successful is that most of the systems are basically miniaturized wind turbines," says Brent Houchens, a mechanical engineer at Sandia National Laboratories. The smaller devices do not produce enough energy to be cost-effective. Plus, their quickly spinning blades create noisy vibrations, and their many moving parts are more prone to breakage. Compared with passive rooftop solar panels, wind turbines have the potential to be quite high-maintenance.

Houchens and his colleagues think they have engineered a solution that overcomes these obstacles by borrowing from a fundamental principle of air flight. The curved shape of an airplane wing—called an airfoil—alters the air pressure on either side of it and ultimately produces lift. Houchens' colleague Carsten Westergaard, president of Westergaard Solutions and a mechanical engineer at Texas Tech University, says he hitched two airfoils together so that "the flow from one airfoil will amplify the other airfoil, and they become more powerful." Oriented like two airplane wings standing upright on their side, the pair of airfoils directly face the wind. As the wind moves through, low pressure builds up between the foils and sucks air in through slits in their partly hollow bodies. That movement of air turns a small turbine housed in a tube and generates electricity.

Thanks to this design, the device—which the researchers call an AeroMINE ("MINE" stands for Motionless, Integrated Extraction)—can pull wind energy from a larger area (essentially, the AeroMINE's rectangular face) than its turbine blades could on their own in a traditional setup. Houchens likens such standard turbines to cookie cutters that leave wasted dough behind. The new device makes use of all the available wind, allowing it to extract more energy.

AeroMINEs also do not generate the same vibrations and noise as regular turbines; they are "less noisy than a ventilation fan," Westergaard says. The relative simplicity of their design means there are fewer moving parts to malfunction. The turbine, which is housed inside a building, would be easier to access if it does need repairs. This arrangement also keeps the blades isolated from any contact with people or wildlife. The team is designing the system so that it could be used in conjunction with rooftop solar panels, plugging into the existing infrastructure to harvest the energy they generate.

"I do think this technology could be groundbreaking" for areas with good wind conditions, says Luciano Castillo, a mechanical engineer at Purdue University, who is not involved in the project but has worked with Westergaard in the past. He also thinks the simplicity of AeroMINEs could make them a good option for developing countries, because the new devices do not require specialized parts or tools and are relatively easy to fix. Castillo and Westergaard both see the potential to use the design underwater to harness tidal energy as well.

Jay Apt, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, who is also not involved in the project, agrees that the simplicity of the design is attractive. But he is unsure whether the system can be scaled up to efficiently generate energy at a low enough cost in a real-world setting. Houchens says that with suitable wind conditions, he and his colleagues think AeroMINEs can be competitive with the current cost of rooftop solar power.

The team, which has received funding from Sandia and the Department of Energy, has tested scaled-down models in wind tunnels to fine-tune the design. In June the researchers have plans to test a four-meter-tall version of the device on a single-story mock building at the Scaled Wind Farm Technology (SWiFT) facility, part of Texas Tech's National Wind Institute.

This story originally appeared in Scientific American and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds, like this inland silverside fish, can pass on health problems to future generations. Bill Stagnaro / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 3.0

By Brian Bienkowski

Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declares victory during the Labor Party Election Night Function at Auckland Town Hall on Oct. 17, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand. Hannah Peters / Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister who has emerged as a leader on the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, has won a second term in office.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?

Read More Show Less
A woman holds a handful of vitamin C. VO IMAGES / Getty Images

By Laura Beil

Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."

Read More Show Less
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough look at a piece of ice core from the Antarctic during a naming ceremony for the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough on Sept. 26, 2019 in Birkenhead, England. Asadour Guzelian - WPA Pool / Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

Support Ecowatch