Green technologies: Portable wind turbine promises off-grid power

Like many green technologies, wind power's main drawback is a matter of size: Small turbines are inefficient and expensive, and utility scale turbines require too much land and capital for some communities. The Portable Power Center, a mobile, mid-sized wind turbine, could be just right.

Courtesy of Uprise Energy
The Portable Power Center, the latest in mobile green technologies, is designed to provide affordable, practical electricity for remote, off-grid communities.

What fits into a standard shipping container and has the ability to power up to 15 homes in a 12 mile-per-hour wind? 

A mid-size, portable wind turbine, called the Portable Power Center, from Uprise Energy, a San Diego-based wind energy company. The 50-kilowatt device is designed to provide affordable, practical electricity for remote, off-grid communities. Set-up requires one technician and one day; maintenance is minimal and done at ground level, according to Uprise. The energy produced is affordable, the makers say, less than utility, solar and diesel power.

For humanitarian efforts and military operations, which require flexible, mobile sources of energy, the Portable Power Center could prove useful. 

According to the company, the wheeled turbine occupies a unique, underdeveloped niche in the green technologies sector. "While wind turbine energy is proven, small wind turbines are inefficient and unaffordable," the Uprise Energy web site reads, "and while utility scale wind turbines are affordable on a cost per kwhr, they require large capital commitments and are not suitable for mid-size communities. The solution is an efficient and affordable mid-size wind turbine that is conveniently delivered, set-up, operated, and maintained."

You might say it's the iPad Mini of wind turbines – a sleek, happy middle ground between performance and portability. 

A computer-animated video on the company's web site depicts the wheeled wind machine in transport. Arriving at its destination, the shiny, white turbine unfolds and rises effortlessly into the air, over the soundtrack of swelling strings. As the fans spin, night falls, and lights flicker on in nearby homes.

Curiously, the wind turbine unit is towed by what appears to be a Hummer – a symbol of gas-guzzling inefficiency in the auto industry.

"This was a decision made by the animation team and was driven by the lack of vehicle options in this size range," wrote Jonathan Knight, principal and director of business development at Uprise Energy, in an email. "I like to think it's running on bio-diesel or some other alternate form of power." 

Stephen Connors, a renewable energy researcher at the MIT Energy Initiative, offered some cautioned skepticism after a preliminary review of Uprise's promotional materials. The MIT Energy Initiative is a multidisciplinary effort at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

The question, as Mr. Connors puts it, is: "Is it physics or is it photoshop?"

New green technology startups often promise cheaper alternatives, but they rarely deliver, Connors said, due to the upfront development costs. Connors also expressed some questions over the engineering logistics of the project – whether or not such a device would be able to stay completely upright in high winds and uneven territory. 

"They’ve got a lot of technological and market uncertainty," Connors said, "but if they can identify a high value early adopter to get a test rig out there then that would be interesting."

The Portable Power Center has received considerable interest from the governments of Argentina and Peru, along with commercial interest from companies in Southeast Asia, according to Mr. Knight.

"We're actively communicating with a number of these parties and are somewhat overwhelmed with the positive response a little media attention has garnered," Knight wrote in an email.

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