In a Requiem for Helix Wind, Critics Come to Bury More Than Praise

Back in May, I noted that Sauer Energy of Newbury Park, CA, had acquired the assets from San Diego’s defunct Helix Wind, which ceased operations at the end of 2010 with an accumulated deficit of nearly $42 million. During its three years in the sun, Helix attracted widespread attention for the iconic design of its helical-shaped vertical axis wind turbines.

Now environmental journalist Brian Clark Howard has written a kind of requiem for Helix Wind on National Geographic’s Daily News website. In Howard’s report, critics air their grievances about vertical axis wind turbines in general, and Helix Wind in particular.

Among the fiercest critics is Kenneth Morgan, a Helix Wind co-founder “whose acrimonious split from the company ended in litigation,” according to Howard. In Howard’s report, Morgan criticizes his former coworkers for “indiscriminately selling turbines to anyone without any feedback or guidance.” Howard also reports that Morgan said his experience at Helix left him feeling “betrayed” and, “It essentially destroyed the company.”

Acrimonious litigation can do that to a startup. Former Helix chairman and CEO Scott Weinbrandt declined to comment in the article. I’ve reached out to Weinbrandt for his perspective as well.

Howard reports that unlike conventional horizontal axis wind turbines, the vertical axis turbines (also known as Savonius turbines) do not generate lift—so they can go no faster than the wind itself. “That’s a hindrance,” Clark writes, “because, in general, the faster the blades turn, the more energy a turbine can harvest from the wind.” As a result, such vertical axis turbines operate at a much lower efficiency for generating power.

Weinbrandt acknowledged this when I profiled the company in 2009. He told me the helical turbines looked so much like spinning sculptures that some customers bought them primarily for the aesthetics. He also told me an advantage of the helical design is its ability to operate at high torque in lower wind speeds and continuing to function in high winds. His strategy was to target urban residential and commercial customers. Yet another critic in Howard’s article faulted Helix for promoting such rooftop installations.

As Howard reports, small wind turbine designer Hugh Piggott wrote in a blog post that wind turbulence churning across rooftops make them a poor site for wind turbines. “Vertical axis designs and rooftop siting are foolish ideas that have cost a lot of people a lot of grief and brought the small wind industry into unnecessary disrepute,” Piggott wrote. He calls the Helix turbine “a nice ornament” but overpriced at $17,500.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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4 responses to “In a Requiem for Helix Wind, Critics Come to Bury More Than Praise”

  1. winder says:

    Hugh Piggott clearly is an advocate of HAWT turbines based on his website. I have installed VAWTS on rooftops successfully. Hugh Piggotts bias for HAWTs is the type of thinking that has brought the small wind industry to its knees. More importantly Hugh Piggotts non certified wind turbines being built in his workshop instead of being professionally manufactured is the type of equipment that has labeled the small wind industry as “inefficient”.

    • Michael Bergey says:

      VAWT’s on rooftops and extremely short towers are the snake oil of the small wind industry. Wildly exaggerated performance claims, often beyond what is physically possible, and ficticious attributes (“bird friendly”, “operates well in turbulence”, etc) are stock in trade for the hustlers that peddle endless slight variations on the 100 year old Darrieus VAWT design or the 2,000 year old Savonius design (e.g., Helix). Any serious VAWT manufacturer must get their product certified to the industry performance and safety standard, AWEA 9.1-2009, by an accredited certification agency such as SWCC or Intertek if they want legitimacy and any chance for long term survival. Most won’t because independent testing would expose the con. Architects that put these “eco-bling” trinkets on buildings for LEED points should be ashamed.

  2. STBro says:

    @Michael Bergey .. It’s not clear what you mean by “product certified to the industry … standard” in the context of this article. “Helix Wind” products offered to the public were certified to IEC 61400-2 ” Design requirements for small wind turbines.” As for snake oil, the reason why impulse type VAWT have been around for at least one thousand years and continue to be used today is because there is an economic incentive for their use. VAWTs that have been used for such a long time are ground-level structures built from primitive materials and sited in appropriate locations. The failure of any particular company is most likely due to the capability (or lack thereof) of its management to run the organization efficiently and execute their business processes effectively.

  3. Michael Robinson says:

    If you have ever witnessed a HAWT “come apart” in high winds, you can appreciate the positive aspects of VAWTs. If you’ve ever had neighbors complain about the noise generated by HAWTs in high winds (the blade tips can exceed the speed of sound which can lead to “coming apart” of the wind turbine) you can appreciate the positive aspects of VAWTs. The “mega-watt” versions of HAWTs don’t have to be too concerned about “coming apart” in high winds because they are tied to a power grid which keeps it’s speed locked in to the Alternating Current of the grid. When they experience overload and disconnect from the grid is when they are likely to “overspeed” and possibly “come apart”. But, I’m sure that measures have been engineered into these to brake them down and lock up the turbine to prevent it spinning out of control. On the smaller scale (home use as an example), the VAWT is probably the better choice.