Renewable heat from wind turbines

I just spent an interesting time at an innovation hub focussing on renewable energy in the North West of England. I was there to discuss the intriguing combination of wind energy with the production of heat rather than the more usual electricity. The Scottish-energy-strategy sets out near identical aspirations so I was particularly interested to see the concept undergo testing ahead of a potentially auspicious future.

Thornton science park is rapidly becoming a regular destination. It is moving away from an historic role researching fuels for the aviation and formula one motor racing industries to one helping define and support the UK’s burgeoning renewable and clean-tech sectors. In March I visited for trials of clean-hydrogen-from-plastic-waste and can report that both the idea and the company are progressing well having gained significant backing to further develop the concept.

This time it was to discover whether wind energy could be used to mechanise a process to produce heat rather than the more usual generating of electricity. For every unit of electricity generated in the UK there are three of gas produced, principally for heat. Both the Riio-2 gas industry consultations and the Scottish energy strategy recognise addressing the issue of heat as being a major part of the 2050 UK decarbonisation target.

I was shown around by inventor and entrepreneur Clifford Spillsbury of h2oturbines. Generations of his family have worked on the Thornton site, including a number for my former employers at Shell. The site now has the strongest of links with Chester University and Cliff has gained incubator funding and some university’s intellectual resource for the technological trials. Cliff hails from a Navy background and approaches problems from the mindset of a mechanical engineer. He has produced a concept with few moving parts with minimal technical complexity combining low speed wind torque to resistance and water pumps, and then heating water, in a most elegant demonstration.

The process itself is not especially visually exciting. I watched as an emulator attached to a thermometer consistently nudged upwards as it recorded temperatures in a sealed water circuit heating from room temperature to beyond 60 degrees centigrade. This is expected to be close to the optimal operating temperature.

That in itself may appear unremarkable, but heating the water is easily carried out by harnessing a version of a wind turbine to a standard water pump and coupled to a form of resistance and simple pipework which allows the low speed winds, currently not harvested, to provide a heating solution. Crucially the technology, which needs minimal maintenance and offers an exceptionally long lifetime, can also be retrofitted.

The heat produced by the unit comes in as a fraction of the cost of rival technologies. H2O wish to trial a 3kW wind turbine, falling below local planning thresholds, on a nearby site for real-world performance.

Coming from a ‘big six’ utility background I was pleased that the technology itself is scalable and the company is looking into a 3-megawatt version. The simplicity of the concept, with its lack of chemical or electrical processes effectively removes several key risks and should make financing much more straight forward. The production of heat at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods is sure to gain wide commercial interest.

The turbines, when they emerge to power the process, are likely to feature ‘fatter’ blades than those we are becoming accustomed to with their electricity generating siblings. They should be quiet, vibration free and operate at lower speeds. The drawings I saw indicated both vertical and horizontal axis variants are being considered.

The turbines may work particularly well at a local level for example for industrial parks or designed into new build housing estates where a decarbonized replacement to methane is urgently needed to meet the recently announced discontinuation of traditional boilers.

With their production of heat via mechanical means and resistance, the turbines do not of course need grid a connection. Models which offer the choice between mechanical heat production or electricity generation area also being proposed and may interest remote or island communities with an ability two switch between the two forms of energy conversion at short notice to meet local demands.

Having demonstrated proof of concept, next up for H20 is a prototype in the coming weeks as intellectual property rights and exclusivities needed to take the project to market are finalised.

With a climate emergency declared by parliament, a government commitment to zero carbon by 2050 and children on the streets demanding action the introduction of technologies such as this could not be better timed. I enjoyed my latest visit to Thornton and look forward to telling you more in the coming weeks.

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