SAN FRANCISCO (Private Equity Week) - Earlier this month, on a Sunday morning, an officer with the California Highway Patrol noticed something out of the ordinary near the desert town of Tehachapi, which is home to the Tehachapi Wind Farm, the second largest wind farm worldwide with more than 5,000 wind turbines. One of the 125-foot tall wind turbines was spinning out of control in 50 mile-per-hour winds.
"It looked like a propeller on an aircraft…and it was giving off a loud racket," CHP Officer Ed Smith told Reuters.
The brake on the windmill had failed and there was a chance it could spin completely out of control. The CHP closed a stretch of nearby Highway 58 for 10 hours, until the winds died down.
Green Energy Technologies, an Akron, Ohio-based startup, is trying to prevent such a dangerous incident from happening again. The startup company contends it has developed a smaller and safer wind turbine it aims to install on commercial rooftops.
The company raised $2 million in its first institutional financing last week from roofing-services company Roth Bros. Inc. to finance initial production and development of its 60-kilowatt WindCube turbine system.
Roth Bros., which has been expanding its energy efficiency and green business practice, services the roofs of large customers, such as the Simon Property Group, which operates shopping malls nationwide.
"We are working every day with energy and facility managers looking for ways to reduce their energy bill and shrink their carbon footprint," says Paul Belair, president of Youngstown Ohio-based Roth Bros. "There is a huge potential demand for a product like the WindCube from building owners."
"It gives us a lot of credibility," founder Mark Cironi said of the investment from Roth Bros.
Green Energy had financed its first three years of research and development after having previously raised $1.5 million from friends and family, according to Cironi. The company, founded in 2006, has also applied for a $1.5 million federal government research grant.
The company's WindCube product, which features blades that are only 15 feet in length, is smaller compared to the turbines on a wind farm, which can feature blades that stretch up to 230 feet in length. Cironi says that the WindCube turbine is mounted inside a funnel, making the system quieter and safer than traditional turbines that "whoosh" loudly as the blades pass the turbine mast.
Green Energy contends that the WindCube can produce enough energy for a range of users, from industrial companies and commercial office buildings to college campuses. The WindCube produces about 160,000 kilowatt hours per year under normal conditions, or enough energy to power roughly 14 U.S. homes per year. The average U.S. home uses about 11,000 kilowatt hours per year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The WindCube system costs $279,000, and Cironi says the company is receiving a huge boost not only from the Tehachapi Wind Farm incident, but from state and federal incentives.
"It's become much easier to market our product since the federal stimulus package was passed," Cironi says.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 contains a provision that allows buyers of "small wind" systems an uncapped investment tax credit of 30% of the total installed cost for systems placed in service between now and 2016.
Hopes of a boom in the wind energy industry have fallen flat in the recent years. But the United States added 2,800 megawatts of wind-energy capacity to the grid during the first quarter of 2009, up from the 1,400 added during the same period of 2008, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Green Energy isn't the only company targeting smaller wind installations.
Flagstaff, Ariz.-based Southwest Windpower raised $10 million from Altira Group, Natural Gas Partners, Rockport Capital Partners and GE Energy Financial Services last month. Southwest Windpower, which is targeting customers who want to put wind turbines on their roofs, has raised more than $28 million to date from venture capitalists.