An Icelandic green tech startup is revolutionizing the way that traditional wind turbines can be deployed in extreme weather environments, and in the process, carving out a new role for wind energy in not only commercial and residential environments, but for military and defense applications. These capabilities will be increasingly important as the Arctic region becomes an area of strategic focus by multiple global actors.
Founded in 2012 by Icelandic entrepreneur Sæþór Ásgeirsson, and based out of a decommissioned coal power plant in Reykjavik, IceWind produces turbines that pair centuries-old mechanical engineering concepts with the latest advanced materials: aerospace grade aluminum, carbon fiber, and high-grade stainless steel to provide reliable, carbon-free energy in extreme weather conditions.
The design itself—which is disarmingly beautiful—is a vertical axis that integrates two types of blades: the “Savonieus” drag type blade that dates back to the Persian Empire, and the “Darrieus” lift type blades, commonly seen on conventional wind turbines and airplanes.
This combination results in a functional turbine— about 1.6 meters tall, roughly the size of a human being—that can generate power in both mild and extreme wind conditions. Seasonal winter winds in Iceland regularly exceed 50 mph—even in the Greater Reykjavik area providing a key testing opportunity for IceWind. Besides the blustery Icelandic winter, the IceWind turbine can also weather blizzards, dust storms, hurricanes, sleet, and heavy rains.
Earlier this year, the company opened—in the very windy and highly energy-focused U.S. state of Texas—to commercial and residential customers, and has received 70 preorders to date, which will be delivered and deployed in the first quarter of 2021.
“This product solves two of the problems that have plagued small wind turbines in the past,” explains IceWind’s Robert Gerber, speaking on this week’s Investable Universe podcast. “The first is performance and the second is durability. Our turbines have a very low cut in speed, so they can turn on at a very low wind speed, about two or three meters per second…They’re extremely durable. They have a wind tolerance of a Category Four hurricane wind. And we’ve engineered them to last 25 years with near-zero maintenance. They’re really designed to perform best in remote areas, coastal areas and the Arctic. They’re quite versatile. We can pair them with photovoltaic solar battery systems, even diesel generators, and they can be used for on and off-grid applications.”
Gerber, a longtime U.S. diplomat, joined IceWind earlier this year as a business and government affairs consultant. Gerber spent over a decade with the U.S. State Department serving at U.S. Embassies in Kabul, Paris, and Washington D.C. His most recent posting was as the Political and Economic Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik, where he managed a unit that produced high-value policy recommendations and implemented strategic initiatives to strengthen cooperation in areas of Arctic security, renewable energy, science, and U.S.-Iceland trade. While there he also assumed the role of Acting Deputy Chief of Mission at the embassy.
Understanding Gerber’s unique background helps shed light on the emerging use cases for IceWind turbines.
“Primarily, what we’re using it [IceWind technology] for now in Iceland is for emergency backup power for a number of critical infrastructure applications,” he explains, adding that one IceWind unit that is providing power at a lighting and charging facility for the Icelandic road and coastal services. The National Power Company is also using an IceWind unit to power a 4G communications depot and camera at a power station.
“There are a number of other uses that we can see for this turbine, including powering cell phone towers, 4G, 5G communications towers around the world,” he adds. “There are something like—this was a surprise to me—400,000 cell phone towers that are off-grid, that need to be powered by diesel generators. You need to drive the diesel up there and do maintenance on the diesel generator. You can provide backup power, if you take an IceWind turbine and bolt it to the top of one of these telecommunications towers. So that would be another application for it. But the more we talk with customers around the world and we’ve had inquiries from Poland, Australia, Canada, and Russia, the more ideas we get for how to apply our our unique technology.
In October, IceWind announced the deployment of its new “Njord” series wind turbine just nine miles below the Arctic Circle on the site of the former U.S. Air Force’s Straumnes Air Station in the Westfjords region of Iceland, where the IceWind RW100 (aka Njord) turbine will power an autonomous emergency beacon operated by the Icelandic Coast Guard (Landhelgisgæsla Íslands)
Straumnes Air Station monitored Soviet maneuvers in the strategic Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap during the Cold War. The area is known for its extreme weather. Five prior attempts have been made to run the site on wind energy, all of them unsuccessful. Wind gusts break apart lesser turbines and none have lasted for an entire winter. IceWind’s turbines, on the other hand, have demonstrated reliability under these conditions.
Gerber notes that the single largest customer for energy in the United States is the Department of Defense. And within the Department of Defense, the biggest consumer of energy is the US Air Force.
“The U.S. Air Force has something like 50 stations in the Arctic, in Alaska, Canada and other places, whether it’s a weather monitoring station or a guidance beacon or a or a small base. And because our turbines are uniquely suited to perform in high wind, super cold Arctic conditions, we see the U.S. Air Force as a potential customer,” Gerber explains. “And the Air Force realizes that having some energy security, independence—what we call distributed energy—is a real advantage for them. It cuts down costs. It makes them more versatile. It makes them more resilient for their operations. So we see that as a as an opportunity.”
Besides military and government customers, IceWind is also talking to civilian U.S. agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as the U.S. Department of of Energy and its National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) division.
“We’ve had great conversations with all of those potential customers and we’re getting great feedback from them, which helps us customize and design our application,” Gerber says.
Finally, IceWind is a signal example of the U.S. and Iceland bilateral partnership in action, a relationship that spans multiple policy fronts and one that Robert Gerber is uniquely positioned to articulate.
“The first pillar, I would say, is on security, on NATO. They are a vital NATO partner. And and so the United States is grateful for that. And secondly, on the economic front, we are Iceland’s number one trading partner, and the United States is very proud of that,” he explains. “We have so much in common when it comes to how we support private enterprise, freedom of press, democracy, all of these things that that make for for good partners.”