AT FIRST glance it looks as gawky and simple as a school weather experiment: a carbon fibre cartwheel with five sculpted blades-cum-spokes, a tail with fins.
But if Dave Anderson’s confidence is borne out, we could be getting an early glimpse of a 21st-century domestic icon. He and his colleagues at Renewable Devices are striving to make the Swift rooftop wind energy system as much a feature of the urban landscape as the satellite dish - and yesterday’s deal with power giant Scottish & Southern Energy brings this a step closer.
When mass production kicks in, Anderson, 34, and his fellow director Charlie Silverton, 32, may be elevated from enterprising engineering PhDs into that luckiest class of businessman: reaping profits and green plaudits in equal bucketfuls.
On a high-tech business campus on the road from Edinburgh to Penicuik, the ten- person team of aerodynamic and electronic engineers who comprise Renewable Devices are fine-tuning preparations for the mass production of this Scottish-designed, Scottish-built home turbine system, which could change our view of renewable energy.
News organisations worldwide have been waking up to the potential of a noiseless, vibration-free, roof-mounted turbine. The device plugs directly into the home grid, it will retail at around £1,500 and promises to repay that in electricity savings to the average household in the first three years of its 20-year guaranteed life.
As Morningside-born Anderson explains it, there was no "eureka moment" in the long process of trial and error in aerodynamic and electronic exploration that allowed them to conquer the glitches that have so far prevented turbines from being safely installed on roofs.
"We were colleagues in the engineering department of Edinburgh University and wanted to provide accessible renewable technology to the UK market."
The patented key to their big idea was the diffuser (the circle around the rotor) which prevents air being thrown at high speed off the ends of the blades. This is the source of the ethereal din and inefficiency common to all previous wind turbines.
Also, at high speed, the sculpted rim acts like the inlet of a jet engine, speeding the flow of air through the rotor plane, boosting its overall efficiency and allowing it to generate up to 1.5kW of electricity at one time (around 4500kW annually). Meanwhile, the twin fins at the back hold the turbine into the wind like a weather vane.
So much for the theory; most importantly, prototypes installed at five Fife Council schools and at a Berwickshire housing association have proved that it works. Even BP flirted with green credentials by installing it on selected filling stations.
The Scottish Executive played midwife to RD’s research process, through a SmartScotland award of £45,000 which, along with the revenue from their renewable energy consultancy arm headed by Andrew Lyle, has allowed the company to conduct tests and build prototypes. The secret of the success of their consultancy, they claim, is that they exceed expectations and keep ahead of technological developments.
Says Anderson: "We’re small enough to react quickly to our clients’ needs but large enough to have a good understanding of new technologies."
Since they started in 2001, and since they won the Scottish Green Energy Award for best new business in 2003, venture capitalists attuned to the energy sector have queued up to batter on their door. They have found that RD’s personnel are not the unworldly lentil-chewing boffins their laid-back management style and contempt for fossil fuels might suggest.
"Our business plan from the beginning was to prove the concept and then, as we progressed through pre-production, to attract a large corporate partner who could add value with the right combination of installation capability and marketing and sales channel ability.
"VC works for some companies but for us the model from the start was to follow a more corporate venture route, where any funder brings more to the party than just a cheque book. Like a lot of engineering and manufacturing companies, we have the chance to raise money through the sale of other products and services, which may result in slower growth. This is a turn-off to a lot of contemporary entrepreneurs but it does mean that the company grows in a sustainable way."
RD is a model of relaxed and horizontal company structure, in which the directors claim to pay themselves less than their colleagues. This collegiate atmosphere befits a staff list comprised entirely of MScs, CEngs and PhDs, though the informality may dissipate when mass production of the Swift turbine begins next year and the workforce increases to meet an expected skyrocketing in turnover figures.
Anderson believes that micro wind power generation will appeal even to the most diehard anti-wind campaigner, as it will reduce the need for the large-scale turbines and pylons that transport the electricity. Renewable Devices may have found a profitable way to bring the technology - and a rare benefit of our breezy climate - right to the point of use.