[Editor’s note: This story is part of a six-article series about small wind. Click here, here, here, here and here to read the rest.]

 

Pierre Rivard stands inside a metal airship hanger nearly three football fields long, looking on as helium is pumped into a prototype of his company’s floating wind turbine.

“This is an historic moment,” says the CEO of Magenn Power, a 200-foot-high ceiling above him.

The Canadian startup is attempting to dramatically shift how wind energy is captured, and the TCOM flight-test facility in North Carolina – a WWII-era building that Rivard calls “the Mecca of big airships” -- is the only place large enough to conduct an indoor test of the Magenn Air Rotor System.

The system, carrying the acronym MARS, is a ground-tethered and oddly designed blimp that generates electricity by spinning on a horizontal axis in the wind. Rivard, during a cell-phone interview at the test site, described it as a floating white sausage mounted with riverboat blades.

The sausage in question is designed to float between 600 and 1,000 feet above ground. When fully commercialized, it will have power capacities ranging from 10 kilowatts to several megawatts, the company claims.

“This is a world’s first, there has never been a rotating airship test done before,” said Rivard, taking in the moment. After a 12-year stint at fuel-cell developer Hydrogenics, the soft-spoken executive joined Ottawa-based Magenn in August to become its president and chief executive officer.

“As I talk to you, this whole envelope in the past 20 minutes has formed,” he enthused. “It’s almost totally formed now, like the birth of a new child.”

Rivard’s job is to help that child grow. In October, the company raised $5 million from California-based Quercus Trust, an investment vehicle for mathematician-turned-philanthropist David Gelbaum.

The reclusive multimillionaire has been on a greentech investment spree lately, buying up stock in alternative-energy companies and throwing tens of millions of venture dollars into clean-energy startups – a list that includes algae-to-biofuel developer LiveFuels and solar-hydrogen generator Nanoptek.

Despite Gelbaum’s generous investment, Magenn already has its eyes on a second $12 million round later this year. At TCOM, the push is on to finish testing the prototype before the company moves the system to a remote outdoor location, where it will be demonstrated later this month to a broader audience.

“We would like to bring in customers and investors who have already expressed an interest in seeing it,” said Rivard, who wants to finalize agreements to raise more capital by the summer.

This will be followed closely by four demonstration projects, each at a unique site. The first will be an industrial project, likely with a big mining company using wind to replace the diesel that currently is flown in, Rivard said. Other locations under consideration include a Caribbean island, a national park and a farm community.

The MARS can be filled with any lighter-than-air gas, including hydrogen, methane and argon, to lift it above the tree line. The company will come out of the gates with a 100-kilowatt model aimed at remote industrial sites, such as offshore oil rigs and mining operations, before expanding into commercial markets.

Eventually, Magenn hopes to make mass-market models that people can take camping or use at their cottage, or which developing countries can use for rural electrification projects. “But that’s on the backburner for now,” Rivard said.

He’s not promising a system that’s cheaper than conventional wind turbines – at least not right away – but hopes to sell the MARS based on its superior performance.

“With a conventional turbine, you typically have a utilization ratio of 20 to 25 percent," he said, "but with us, because we go higher, you have more constant and stronger winds, so the utilization ratio is more like 50 percent.”

Magenn wouldn’t be the first company to pursue such lofty heights. California’s Sky WindPower Corp. and Kite Gen Research of Italy have also designed “high-altitude” wind systems that are tethered to the ground. Another California venture, Makani Power, raised $10 million from Google.org in 2006 to help develop a kite system that taps winds in the jet stream.

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