Giving small wind a boost with solar backing

Activity and acquisitions are continuing in Australia's renewables industry with one recent buy highlighting how small wind has a great role to play in the right place.

One thing I love about this industry is that it’s so persistent, it just won’t give up.

Despite the ups and downs, market crashes and company collapses there are some people and companies who just keep battling on; and here’s a delightful bit of news to prove it.

Central West Solar and Soma Wind Generators are two examples and I was thrilled to learn recently that after many decades of experience these two companies are not only surviving, but have a new lease of life after a recent acquisition.

Incredibly, Soma was conceived in New Zealand in 1978 in the height of the first major wave of renewable technology growth, driven by skyrocketing oil prices. In 1995 the business and manufacturing rights were purchased by Australian David Bartley from Sunrise Solar, who has since then built over 500 Soma wind turbines which are now installed all over Australia and New Zealand. As an industry veteran, Dave has ridden the solar coaster and come out the other side smiling, a great achievement. Dave made further improvements to the original design, but essentially the machine has been built around the same design for over 30 years.

Central West Solar is a another relative rarity in solar energy, with more than a decade of experience in on grid and off-grid energy, based in western NSW. Owner Robert Biviano recently decided that the best way to survive in this industry was to diversify, and acquired Soma from David Bartley. Although the small wind turbine industry can be tough going and is tiny compared to solar, Rob described his decision like this:

“I felt that there was still a place for small wind as part of the renewable energy landscape. Soma is an icon in our industry, and it gave me the opportunity to be associated with an Australian manufacturing success, the ability to tap into the off-grid market and feed my growing interest in electronics, fitting and machining.

"Having known David Bartley for some time, I knew he would be very helpful during and after the transition. After some years on the solar coaster myself, it felt that this was a real opportunity to get involved in something that reinvigorated my passion for the renewable energy industry and would allow me to quietly follow in the footsteps of some other pioneers, for whom the motivation was to build something cool, and take the time to do it right.”

Over my years in renewables I’ve lived with and installed a range of technologies, including the odd small wind turbine. While their larger cousins can cause controversy, I’ve visited numerous properties where committed owners have installed these devices appropriately and have enjoyed low-cost reliable energy without a power line in sight, for decades. As a rule their neighbours are more often than not envious of their neighbour's independence and very supportive of their ambition. Personally, I still find it nothing short of incredible to watch how a wind turbine (large or small) can utilise the wind and convert it into clean energy. It’s a majestic and wonderful thing to watch physics in motion.

Now it's also true that I have borne witness to the fact that there are no short cuts when it comes to wind energy. I’ve seen experimental blades fail catastrophically, being flung hundreds of metres and embedding themselves into cow pastures. I’ve seen tower lifts fail, sending cables and winches flying and I’ve heard stories of unreliable electronics causing all manner of technical problems. Wind power can generate fabulously low-cost energy even at small scale but it has to specified, built, installed and maintained by people who have a deep knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.

Soma machines are built around a brushless three-phase permanent magnet generator, rectified at the controller to charge 24 or 48-volt batteries in two sizes, 400W and 1000W. The machine can also be wound for a higher voltage and rectified to form the DC supply for string inverters so although they were originally designed for off-grid living, they can and are used to support grid connect applications, too. The all important power controller has been designed and is built by Soma too, and uses pulse-width modulated regulation and modern electronics to manage energy flows. The Soma has a simple but effective “furling” mechanism which allows the turbine to tilt up when wind speeds exceed the machines capability. The centre of effort of the rotor is above the pivot point of the stator, and wind pressure causes the whole assembly to tilt up reducing the rotor area presented to the wind. With more than 30 years of field experience and development, Soma have obviously learned a trick or two along the way. And the fact that they have not only survived but are now entering a new phase of ownership and development with Rob at the helm is a refreshing and fantastic story about how renewables can and do work, year after year after year.

I asked Rob what his thoughts on the future for Soma were and where he saw the product heading and here’s what he said:

“I hope to continue the tradition of manufacturing to a standard and, if and where possible, improve the reliability and longevity of the machine with further standardising of the process and we have set up a small manufacturing facility in the rural town of Orange in NSW to make it happen. Moving forward we hope to add to the current range with something like a 3-5kW machine, further develop the possibility of MPPT charging, provide training to the dealer network and incorporate a service model to add more value to the entire package.

"We’re going to streamline and not mess with the things that have worked perfectly for almost 30 years, but modernise the sales and manufacturing process and add new technology where it is appropriate.”

They key to the tenacity and success of renewable energy is that it adds diversity to the world’s energy mix and the myriad of resources, applications and technologies we have available is perfectly complementary. Small wind has a great role to play in the right place and with the right technologies and it's great to see Soma batting on in new hands and helping rural communities.

Nigel Morris is the director of Solar Business Services