Climate Tech

Uprise Energy wants its tiny wind turbines to replace diesel generators

Hundreds of isolated communities in the US rely on diesel generators for some or all of their power.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Images: Uprise Energy, Getty Images

· 5 min read

The conventional wisdom around wind turbines goes as follows: the bigger the better.

That’s because turbines need to be large (read: very large) to gather wind effectively—there’s a stronger breeze high in the sky compared to down near the ground.

While much of the focus is on deploying large turbines that can generate grid-level energy, San Diego-based Uprise Energy is looking to serve a smaller niche: Places that need less energy than a city or a town but still wish to find a cost-effective way to reduce their reliance on fossil-fuel energy sources, like diesel power generators.

Uprise’s solution, the mobile power station, is a wind turbine that can fit inside of a 20-foot storage container and can be towed by a pickup truck. Uprise specializes in what the Department of Energy refers to as “small distributed wind,” hyper-local energy consumption systems that can deliver up to 100 kilowatts (kW) of energy straight to a customer.

Corey Markfort, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, told Emerging Tech Brew via email that smaller distributed wind systems could fill a “critical gap, especially in remote areas that are not served by a reliable electric grid or are not on a grid at all.”

Big goals, small turbines

The implications of this technology at scale could be significant, as it could allow those living in remote areas who rely on diesel power generators to replace them with cleaner, more affordable renewable energy. A 2019 DOE report wrote that there are “hundreds of isolated communities” in the US alone that rely on diesel generators for some or all of their power.

“We quickly determined that there had to be a better alternative than diesel generators for edge of grid remote power,” Jonathan Knight, CEO and cofounder of Uprise Energy, told Emerging Tech Brew. “This wasn’t about saving the planet or being green, this was about how do you give reliable, affordable power to people that are not connected to a utility power grid.”

The wind turbines are optimized to be fully effective at speeds of around 10 miles per hour, but Knight said Uprise’s mobile power stations are capable of supplying energy at wind speeds as low as 5 miles–6 miles per hour, once the rotors are up and running.

The company’s turbines are operating in the 10-cent-to-25-cent per kWh range, Knight said, which he claims is less expensive than diesel generators, which vary significantly in cost based on fuel prices. A 2016 study found that in the most remote regions of Alaska, the cost of diesel-generated power ranged from 50 cents to $1 per kWh, and between 19 cents and 37 cents in less remote locations.

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Uprise was founded a decade ago, and Knight said most of its funding has come from the company’s founders and from “high net-worth individuals,” but declined to share overall fundraising figures.

So far, Knight said, the 15-person company has sold, coincidentally,15 units. It has partnered with the Idaho National Laboratory through the Department of Energy, as part of its Defense and Disaster Deployable Turbine (D3T) program, which Knight described as a “reliable revenue stream.” It also has a contract with the California Energy Commission. In total, the company has raised “roughly $2 million” via grants and contracts, Knight said.

Beyond its current 14-kW model, Uprise has plans to expand into 50 kW and 100 kW models, but Knight said nothing is locked in yet.

“The DOE has recognized that distributed wind energy is ripe for advancement as it has not yet received significant R&D support compared to large utility-scale wind power,” Markfort said. “Similar to solar, distributed wind can be installed on farms or by rural homeowners to supply renewable electricity to their home or business operations. Often, when the sun is not shining, the wind is blowing, so there may be a benefit to using solar and wind in combination.”

John Hall, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University at Buffalo, told us that tech like this could be useful for disaster relief, or in remote or highly mobile military installations.

However, Hall said the company is likely to face challenges from companies focused on portable forms of other renewables, like solar. And although it can work in places where large turbine farms don’t make sense, it still needs decent wind speeds to produce energy to begin with.

For his part, Knight argued that portable wind power is more desirable than options like solar because it can generate power for more hours of the day, making the turbines more energy dense.

“Let’s be honest here, they’ve got some challenges,” Hall said. “Do I think the technology is viable? Yeah, I do, and the reason I do is people are starting to recognize there’s a real impact here with fossil-fuel energy…One of the things that works in their favor is people’s conscience—they want renewable energy resources.”

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