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Reporting on innovative ideas in business.

New Year, New Context for Wind Turbine: Emergency Relief

Two months after the New York City region was hit by Superstorm Sandy, the devastating scope of its damage is becoming even clearer. Consolidated Edison, for example, recently estimated that the cost to repair its electric grid in the New York area will reach $450 million. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, power was lost at many homes and businesses, affecting millions of people. This meant no heat, no way to store food safely, and no way to charge mobile phones for basic emergency communication. As of today, many residences, offices, and stores are still reeling from business lost and lives upturned by losing electricity. Hearing these stories (and because many of us at frog experienced power loss ourselves at home and at work), we wondered what simple-to-use emergency power-generating solutions could prove effective as a disaster relief tools.

One adventurous project that frog has been developing fits this bill: a portable wind turbine. Named Revolver, this device concept was voted by Core77 readers a year ago as the winning concept in the first Future or Fiction internal design competition at frog, prompting frog to engineer a viable prototype. The original brief for the competition was to come up with a creative way to harness wind power through existing infrastructure or by very easily adapting it to existing infrastructure.
 
Revolver’s basic design was inspired by an umbrella. “On a rainy day, when I was working with a team of frogs on concepts for a wind turbine, I had my umbrella with me and I thought: the umbrella is the perfect example of a convenient personal tool,” Jin Seok Hwang, principal designer at frog, explains. “It is very light, people carry it easily; it’s compact and can be made smaller. Plus, my umbrella always gets carried away…or spins in the wind. This type of structure is perfect for the wind turbine, I thought. It was a eureka moment.”


 
The resulting prototype of Revolver (shown above) folds up with one swift slide, and can blossom into four curvaceous turbine blades with the same sliding movement. The turbine is set atop an attached tripod base. During high winds, spikes on the base’s tips can anchor Revolver to the ground. It’s highly portable and easy to store, as it really is about the size of a typical large umbrella, and it includes a slender storage tube. Revolver can generate up to 35 watts of power from just a soft wind. That’s enough to juice a laptop and mobile phone, as well as keep a lantern running, simultaneously – all very urgent tools during a disaster.
 
In fall 2012, the frog team responsible for designing Revolver--Paul Bradley, Jonas Damon, David Gustafson, Jin Seok Hwang, Brian Wasson, and Ryan Wickre --was honored to accept a BraunPrize 2012 award for Revolver. The category was sustainability. While frog intended from the beginning to develop Revolver as an eco-friendly product, it can also be seen in a humanitarian context as well. The BraunPrize jurors pointed this out as well, stating that “it would be helpful in many situations…[including] in emergencies.”
 
The power loss statistics in the New York area related to Superstorm Sandy illustrate the need for quickly deployable power solutions. When the storm reached its peak on the evening of Monday, October 29, 2012, hundreds of thousands of buildings lost electricity. According to Consolidated Edison, 634,000 customers in New York City and Westchester County were without power as of 1:30 am on Tuesday October 30. Con Ed cut off power service in areas of Lower Manhattan to avoid a larger outage, and unplannedpower failure and an explosion, both at Con Ed stations, shut off electricity for about 250,000 more customers. Those staggering statistics only cover Manhattan. In New Jersey, reported the New York Times, more than two million customers were without power as of 1:30 a.m. October 30, and in Connecticut nearly 500,000 more. These numbers do not include highly devastated areas such as Red Hook, Brooklyn; areas of Staten Island; and neighborhoods in Queens such as the Rockaways and Breezy Point.
 
If brought to market, Revolver could be put into use very quickly in emergency situations, such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and tropical storms (once winds have lost their maximum force in the latter two). In the original concept of the turbine, frog considered its beauty as well as its functionality, to help make the unit attractive to use (and marketable) as much as it was practical. frog also designed the units with the inspiring concept of “personal power” — or freedom from the energy grid.

In the aftermath of Sandy, we've come to see Revolver’s true beauty, as well as its context of personal empowerment, in its potential ability to help many people in emergency situations around the world.

Reena Jana is frog's Executive Editor. Based in New York, Reena is the former innovation department editor at BusinessWeek, and has contributed to a variety of publications including Wired, the New York Times, Harvard Business Review online, Fortune.com, and numerous others.