Look past the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School next time you drive by, and you can't miss the tower of the wind turbine behind the building. Check the tower on several outings, and you'll notice that on some days the blades are spinning hard, on other days slowly, and on others not at all.
What you're seeing in action is the problem of intermittency, and it's the bane of wind power as a serious contributor to our global energy mix. Wind is one of the world's most abundant forms of energy, and one of the least reliable. The wind blows when it will, and this variability poses all sorts of problems when you try to plug it into the energy grid.
Michael Marcus, who works most days from the basement office of his West Tisbury home, is convinced that his company, General Compression, has cracked the problem of intermittency. And he predicts that when General Compression's new technology is demonstrated in a prototype wind farm now being planned, the world will beat a path to his door.
The core problem with wind power becomes clear, says Mr. Marcus, when you understand that electricity, once created, doesn't just zip around the grid until it meets a light bulb or toaster-oven that needs it. Electricity needs to be used as it's created, or it's lost. And customers for electricity, be they big utilities like NSTAR or homeowners throwing the light switch, want their watts when they want them, not just when the wind is blowing.
Enter General Compression, from somewhere in technological left field, with a plan that sounds wacky the first time you hear it:
Don't attach generators to those spinning vanes atop your wind turbines - put air compressors up there instead. Run the compressed air into storage - networks of pipes or tanks, or natural geologic features like underground caves. Then draw on that compressed air to drive turbines and make electricity when the customers want it.
"We plan to have three prototypes up and running in late 2009," Mr. Marcus says.
Incremental improvements are still being made to the design of towers and blades, Mr. Marcus says, but most of the technology behind wind energy is mature. "We're tackling the bigger problem of how do you change the value of this power? They way you do that is by making it schedulable.
"With our technology, we're changing the value of the electricity. Our power is two to ten times more valuable, because we can sell it when it's wanted."
Michael Marcus and his brother, David, are president and CEO, respectively, of General Compression, a Newton-based company that was spun off in 2005 from a firm called Mechanology LLC. Mechanology, based in Attleboro, was founded in 2000 to develop a newly invented compressor called the toroidal intersecting vane machine, or TIVM.
Michael Marcus met with Eric Ingersall, the CEO of Mechanology, quite by chance four years ago, at a shoe-shine booth at a Chicago conference of the American Wind Energy Association. "I'm waiting to get my shoes shined," he says, "and Eric is sitting behind me next to a guy from General Electric. He asks this guy from GE, 'What do you do?' - and he says, 'I sell wind turbines for GE,' and trying to reciprocate, he asks, 'What do you do?'
"And Eric says, 'I'm the chairman of a compressor company, and we have a technology to put our compressors into wind turbines to make compressed air and sell our electricity on-peak, and change the whole game in wind.' And the GE guy says, 'Oh that's great, have a great show, see you later.'
"I climbed up into the chair next to Eric and said, 'Excuse me for eavesdropping, but not really - and what the hell did you just say?'" Michael and David Marcus ended up spending the rest of the day with Mr. Ingersall, grilling him about his company's new compressor technology.
Until 2005, when they started General Compression, the Marcus brothers were investors specializing in wind energy. Because there are so few pure plays for investors in this field - big manufacturers like GE, which makes most of the world's turbines, are too diversified - the brothers had concentrated instead on investing in what Mr. Marcus calls "this middle tier of wind farm developers out looking for places where there's a good wind resource and good transmission opportunities - out in the field trying to get projects permitted, trying to tie up the land with the farmers or landowners."
When they met Mr. Ingersall, the Marcus brothers were uniquely positioned not only to appreciate the potential of the TIVM compressor in the world of wind energy, but also to bring that technology to market. "What we liked about this compressor technology from the very start," he said, "is that it had all the right attributes for going into a wind turbine."
For a while the brothers kept in touch with Mechanology about its efforts to sell this new idea to the wind industry. Then in 2005, Mr. Marcus recalls, "Eric finally said, 'Look, you guys are the ones who understand why this needs to be done. You have all these relationships in the wind energy industry. All of the guys you've invested with are now becoming part of the development arms of the largest wind farm owners domestically and globally. Why don't we spin this thing off and have you guys run it?'"
The brothers Marcus talked about it, took a deep breath, and launched General Compression that December. Says Michael: "We were doing very well just being investors, and we knew what it was like to start up a business. But this was just too compelling. We really believe this is one of the scalable solutions to renewable energy, for bringing the cost of renewable energy down below the cost of gas plants, new coal plants, new nuclear plants. Once you've been shown the light, the burden is on you as well. We couldn't let this just sit."
Though it's revolutionary in some respects, Mr. Marcus insists there's nothing in this new way of making electricity that demands a great engineering breakthrough. Instead, he says, it's a matter of solving a plethora of small problems, bringing technologies together so they mesh in a utility-scale plant that uses compressed air to run its generators.
Even the approach of using natural underground features as geologic "batteries" is proven, Mr. Marcus says: "Our country's strategic reserves of natural gas have been stored in underground salt domes for years. This is very well understood engineering, and at much higher pressures than we'll need."
Closer to home, Mr. Marcus has been following the controversy over the proposed Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound with interest. He emphasizes that he's not an investor in the project, and in fact he marvels at what the developers have had to spend in their effort to win permits. Looking back on his own experience as a wind farm investor, he says, "We haven't ever chosen projects that are so controversial. Jim Gordon and his company have spent an order of magnitude - more than ten times what we would spend - for a similarly sized project's approval elsewhere in the country, where we've been welcomed."
But he declares: "It has to be done. This project has to be done. We can't say, it can't be in my backyard."
Michael Marcus believes that the federal government does have a role to play, setting policies that encourage innovation and steps toward greener forms of energy. But in the end, he says, these new technologies will be accepted in the marketplace when they become competitive.
"We will never, ever solve these problems until the solutions provide the lowest cost alternatives. We believe that we can do that with this technology. This will be a less-costly alternative than building a new coal plant, never mind the environmental costs."
Nis Kildegaard, a writer and editor, is the designer and editor of Framework, the Journal of Affordable Housing on Martha's Vineyard. Mr. Kildegaard lives in Edgartown.