As a teenager, Rolf Luchsinger had two hobbies: tinkering with his beloved motorbike and fishing. ‘For me, it was about perfection,’ he recalls. ‘The engine of a motorbike is perfect. A fish is also a perfect thing. In fact, very few things work more efficiently than nature.’ His future career path as a scientist and businessman working in the field of renewable energy can be traced back to these two childhood passions: nature and engineering.
Today, Rolf is the CEO and the co-founder (along with Canadian Corey Houle and three other team members) of TwingTec, a start-up that in 2013 spun out of two Swiss research institutions: the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) and the University of Applied Sciences of Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW).
The company has been making waves worldwide with its new system for harnessing wind power. In essence, TwingTec has developed a drone which can fly at high altitudes while remaining attached to a ground station via a long cable. (The drone is also referred to as a ‘tethered wing’ or ‘Twing’, hence the name.) The drone can ascend 300 metres from the ground station, where the wind resources (in other words, the strengths of the wind) are up to eight times higher than at 18 metres, the height of comparable wind turbines. ‘Thus,’ says Rolf, ‘we can produce significantly more energy.’
He and his team believe that this system will eventually replace the wind turbines that have popped up in clusters around the world in the past decades and will one day become the most efficient method of harnessing wind energy. This is why they call the system ‘Wind Power 2.0’.
As this epithet suggests, TwingTec is focused on creating a paradigm shift. ‘For me,’ says Rolf, ‘it’s about something more than incremental changes. Wind turbines are getting bigger, more efficient, and the costs are coming down. But I felt there was something radically different about this.’
From his viewpoint, tethered drones have several advantages over traditional wind turbines, at least in theory. First, the system requires fewer materials overall. ‘Compared to wind turbines, we produce way more power with way less material,’ says the CEO, sitting in his office in the company headquarters in Dübendorf, Switzerland. ‘More power because we can fly higher where the wind is stronger and less material because we reduce the wind turbine to the minimum. We don’t need the tower or the foundations, so it means you can get rid of up to 90 per cent of the material.’ In the long run, he believes this will mean lower-cost energy by far.
“I’m convinced that what really has to happen is that wind goes offshore into the sea, because there’s tons of space and perfect wind.”
When it comes to the components that TwingTec does need, the company is at an advantage here, too. It can piggyback on two industries that are currently burgeoning: electric cars and electric aviation. Not only are automotive companies investing vast sums in electric vehicles; hundreds of companies, from behemoths including Uber and Airbus to start-ups such as Volocopter, are pouring money into electric-powered ‘air taxis’ – passenger drones for urban mobility.
This investment will lead to the mass production of parts and therefore radically lower component costs for TwingTec. This is also, Rolf points out, a reason why traditional wind turbines will ultimately have their limits. ‘They can’t tie in many other mass-produced technologies from other markets and use that cost reduction to produce cheaper energy.’
Yet it’s in the longer term that TwingTec will prove itself a far more efficient alternative to wind turbines. And the reason, according to its CEO, lies out in the world’s deepest oceans.
‘I’m 100 per cent convinced that what really has to happen is that wind goes offshore into the sea,’ he says, ‘because there’s tons of space and perfect wind.’ Of course, we do already have offshore wind farms today, but these can only be constructed in relatively shallow waters, because the vertiginous towers have to be anchored to the seabed. This limits current wind farms to a very small number of regions where the water is shallow enough. By comparison, Rolf points out, TwingTec’s tethered drones don’t need a tower or any foundations, meaning they can fly from a floating platform.
Not only would this have the advantage of exploiting the higher-velocity winds found further out at sea; it would also mitigate a secondary problem with wind turbines that is no less important: people generally don’t like the look of them. ‘We see this in Switzerland. People don’t like big structures being built in nature, because they create shadows and noise, and can also harm birds. There is widespread opposition to wind turbines here,’ says Rolf. Offshore, if you can go into deep water, the wind power plant won’t be visible from the shoreline and nobody will be disturbed. Plus, when there is no wind, the TwingTec drones can be grounded, making them even less obtrusive.
Despite all of these putative advantages, it must be said that the TwingTec system is still some way off being both commercially available and a genuine alternative to wind turbines, which after all have been invested in for decades now. Rolf and his team of eight engineers built a small-scale system in 2018 which had one main purpose: ‘To show that this is a feasible way of producing power.’ This was successful and proved the concept. Now they are building and testing a system that will produce constant power next year. ‘We have compared it to a wind turbine with the same power,’ says Rolf. ‘It’s incredible to see the amount of material we save. Only a box on the ground and a wing that is smaller than one blade of the turbine.’ Yet, even this system is too small to be economically viable, so they are still – by Rolf’s estimation – three years away from a commercial roll-out to market.
“You need a big goal, but you need to be able to show each of the steps, so that in the long term, you can deliver what you promise.”
The next step for TwingTec is to create a viable product for the so-called ‘off-grid’ market – islands, mines, and communities based in remote locations. ‘This off-grid market is an attractive one for us because there is a big problem as power there is still produced by diesel generators,’ says Rolf. ‘And these diesel generators are producing expensive electricity, they’re noisy and, especially if you think about transport of fuel, logistically they’re very difficult to run. These people are definitely looking for solutions where costs can come down.’
He believes that this off-grid application is a perfect entry market for TwingTec and an ideal test case for the viability of the system. While wind turbines are simply too big to be transported and too costly to set up, his system is relatively transportable and easy to deploy in remote places.
Once Rolf and his team have proved they have an efficient and cost-saving solution for large off-grid energy consumers, they will then start looking at on-grid applications. In other words, they will start looking at how TwingTec can contribute to (and cash in on) the huge, multi-billion-dollar electricity market. At the moment, turbines can create more energy than his drones (putting it simply, Rolf says: ‘You need big drones to be competitive with big turbines’). But in future, he believes TwingTec will be able to compete not just on efficiency but also on scale.
Rolf and his team clearly have both a longer-term vision and also a roadmap for achieving that vision, and the CEO believes this is vital, particularly in the burgeoning renewable-energy sector. ‘It’s not just about being sustainable,’ he notes. ‘It’s about having a realistic plan, so you can convince people. You need a big goal but you need to be able to show each of the steps so that in the long term, you can deliver what you promise.’
He says there aren’t many people willing to invest in early-stage ventures such as TwingTec, but he has some words of encouragement for those who are attracted by a broader vision of a more sustainable future. ‘If you believe in the idea, take some risk,’ he urges. ‘Because, yes, it might take longer, it might take an extra year, but the reward could be huge – and I mean not just financial reward, but for society.’