Strip District-based company uses slower winds to draw energy for Western PA

By Katelyn Ferral
Monday, June 22, 2015, 11:03 p.m.

WindStax is aiming to make wind energy work in Pittsburgh.

Surrounded by hills, the city is not ideal for the traditional wind turbine that requires high-speed, less-turbulent air.

The Strip District-based company is going a different route.

WindStax’s vertical turbines look like towers of thread-bare spools. They’re designed to accommodate slower wind speeds and lower altitudes, and fit on a roof.

The market for wind energy dwindled without a steady stream of public subsidies in Pennsylvania. But WindStax says demand for its turbines has outpaced its ability to make and distribute them.

“We’re leaving our startup phase and entering our growth mode,” said Ron Gdovic, founder and CEO. “We just cannot keep up with demand.”

Gdovic declined to provide revenue figures but, over its two-year history, WindStax has made and installed 19 wind turbines — 17 in Western Pennsylvania, including on the roof of Pittsburgh Public Market and at Audubon Society’s Succop Nature Reserve in Penn Township. The other two are in Virginia.

The company manufactures its turbines in 20- and 40-foot sizes and is looking to buy a manufacturing company or a larger space to make more turbines, faster. It hopes to increase manufacturing capacity to 10 units per month and started a capital campaign last week to raise $5 million.

“We’re really looking for help to grow, because we really want to stay in Pittsburgh,” Gdovic said. “That’s our biggest fear: that we get pulled out of Pittsburgh.”

Gdovic and Mark Goyke, the project manager, are WindStax’s only employees. The company uses part-time employees and some subcontractors and fabricators to help build its turbines. They make about two turbines a month by hand for customers within a 100-mile radius.

“We grew the company the old-fashioned way: built a few things, sold a few things, built a few things, sold a few things,” Gdovic said.

The aluminum and steel vertical turbines have a different rotor than traditional windmills. The wind pushes the turbine, rather than carrying it like an airplane, and a magnetic brake system keeps it at a steady speed, regardless of wind. The company customizes each turbine based on its intended location and installs solar panels at the turbine’s base to make a hybrid system.

“Individually, for a customer, we’re trying to figure out where that sweet spot is going to be,” Goyke said.

That model has worked well on Dominic Perrotte Jr.’s hill on his farm in Slate Lick in Armstrong County. Perrotte bought a 20-foot Windstax turbine 18 months ago and said he saves $75 a month on his electric bill across three buildings.

“I’m loving it,” he said. “It’s running my greenhouse right now and part of my office.”

His farm gets a lot of wind, and he wants to add a 40-foot turbine, he said. The turbine makes no noise but garners lots of questions from onlookers.

“A lot of people don’t even recognize what it is, because a windmill to them is three paddles spinning around,” he said.

Perrotte can store energy, a perk for homeowners that WindStax aims to capitalize. The company is on its second-generation model, outfitted with microgrids that store energy in lithium salt batteries made by Lawrenceville’s Aquion Energy. It has applied to distribute Tesla’s new lithium ion Powerwall battery.

WindStax turbines cost, on average, $10 per watt installed. Solar installations are cheaper, generally about $2.50 to $7 per installed watt, depending on the company. The price for a 20-foot turbine averages $19,900 and a 40-foot, $39,900.

This month, WindStax installed three 40-foot turbines at Epic Metals in Braddock along the Monongahela River. The turbines are powering the company’s lights for one of its manufacturing buildings and have generated more electricity than expected, said David Landis, Epic’s vice president.

“I’m right along this river valley, and that generates a lot of wind,” Landis said. “We’re hopeful they’re going to exceed our expectations, and we’ll be able to put other electrical loads on the WindStax.”

Wind power generates only 1.5 percent of total electricity in Pennsylvania. Limited government aid, except for a 30 percent federal tax credit, has made buyers shy away from expensive wind systems. WindStax’s business model is to make its turbines cost-effective without government help, Gdovic said.

“In our mind, and we knew this three years ago, these incentives for green energy were dwindling and now they’re gone, pretty much, in Pennsylvania,” he said.

WindStax is the only company of its kind that makes a vertical turbine powered by the air drag, rather than lift. It shares market space with Urban Green Energy, based in New York City.

UGE makes hybrid systems and vertical wind turbines designed for city spaces and has installed its systems in China and Paris, but its turbines are powered with a different kind of rotor. It has a more expansive distribution market than WindStax and also manufactures its own turbines. The capital-intensive market for wind energy makes it tough for startups, said Taka Koizumi, UGE’s head of marketing.

“It’s a small number of companies,” he said.

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