Robert Lumley had just wrapped up a two-day conference on wind energy in Berlin when he decided to grab a stein of beer at a local bar and kill time before his flight out of the German capital the next morning.
That’s when the light bulb went off for the avid kiteboarding enthusiast.
He took out a book from his holding bag labeled “Airborne Wind Energy” that he got at the conference and scribbled on the back cover a novel idea for a business proposal.
“All great ideas come when having a beer,” said Lumley, who said it was in that Berlin bar over a decade ago that he began tinkering with an approach to eliminate the massive wind turbines that dot the landscape around Wyoming and elsewhere.
Lumley told Cowboy State Daily that the early drawing depicted what eventually became the centerpiece of his business at Airloom Energy Inc., located along Aerospace Drive near the Laramie Regional Airport.
He’s built a pilot project 10 miles north of Pine Bluffs to prove out the concept, which generates 10s of kilowatts of electricity.
Lumley got nearly a $1 million in seed funding from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research Grant program.
The drawing eventually grew into a pilot project that operates sort of like what Lumley calls a “flying shuttle loom” where independent wings travel back and forth over a repeating pattern, like a shuttle or (weaving shuttlecock) on a flying loom. Instead of a tall turbine with huge blades, this concept has a series of vertical blades low to the ground that move horizontally around an oval.
In practice, the blades travel along a cable in a track atop a series of 82-foot-long poles arranged in an oval, intercepting the wind as it travels down both the home and the backstretch of the cable’s track. As the blades come around, the power they generate is siphoned off to the grid.
The innovative design could eventually produce hundreds of megawatts of power at a fraction of the cost and footprint of traditional horizontal axis wind turbines with three blades.
In 2020, the business caught the attention of billionaire investor Bill Gates and his well-heeled Breakthrough Energy Ventures in Kirkland, Washington, which began contributing along with Lowercarbon Capital in Jackson, Wyoming, and others, about $4 million in seed money.
That money helped enable Airloom Energy to successfully test its novel idea in Pine Bluffs and with the U.S. Department of Defense in Paso Robles, California.
The military wants to produce electricity in “forward deployed” areas of a battleground and sees the Airloom Energy as having potential.
Airloom Energy is back in talks with Breakthrough and other venture capitalists to fund millions of dollars more for the company’s next stage of growth.
This year, it plans to begin construction on a bigger pilot project that generates up to 1 megawatt of power outside of its Laramie headquarters near the airport.
Not all has been smooth sailing for Lumley since he first penned out the idea in a Berlin bar. He’s had a few failures along the way.
Some of the early problems related to manufacturing the 10-20 wings on the prototype perfectly so that they fitted securely to the bridles on the cables. Connectors for wires also were known to rattle loose, and wires were not properly knotted together, he said.
“Almost all of our failures related to nuts, knots and wires,” he said.
The Right Man Moving Forward
Lumley thinks he has the right person to run Airloom Energy in CEO Neal Rickner. Rickner was with Google X before Google parent Alphabet refocused resources elsewhere.
A former F-18 fighter pilot who served from 1996 to 2009, Rickner was chief operating officer for Google X’s Makani Technologies, which developed airborne wind turbines.
“Airloom has the potential to be a third of the cost” compared to traditional turbines, said Rickner.
Wyoming energy projects aren’t foreign to Gates. He also is an investor in the small nuclear reactor company TerraPower, which is building a plant in Kemmerer.
Pat Maio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.