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Gone with the Wind

An innovator who harnesses urban breezes

By JANE AMMESON
   For more than three decades, Bil Becker has been fascinated by the concept of harvesting the wind. An acolyte of the visionary Buckminster Fuller, who believed that engineering should work with nature not against it, Becker was part of a team that designed and built the first successful urban wind generator in this country after the energy crisis of 1979. And now, 30 years later, his “aeroturbines,” or urban wind generators, are beginning to become part of Chicago’s cityscape. Becker had been advised that change wouldn’t happen fast.
   “Fuller warned me if you get into this type of architecture, be prepared to wait 30 years,” says Becker, CEO of Aerotecture Inc., an Illinois corporation working on all forms of renewable energy with a focus on urban wind power. “You have your hard days and good days when you’re doing something like this. But when you have a chance to read about technology, there are always political forces holding technology back. The gas companies that had all these gaslights fought very hard against Edison. Henry Ford was told to get a horse, and it wasn't just a joke because the roads were so bad back then, cars would often get stuck and another car couldn’t pull them out, but a horse could. But cars were also touted as a way to save New York from the tons of horse manure that caused disease. Cars were the cure.”
   For the four years that Jimmy Carter was president, Becker and others had hope for what was at the time called “alternative energy.”
   “Everything went away in the ‘80s,” says Becker. “Reagan took down the solar panels that Carter had put up. But it began to emerge again, and that’s when the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘renewable’ emerged in ‘90s.  Bush Jr. rescinded it again—but interestingly he lives in a sustainable compound in Texas. And here we are 30 years later, just getting leadership in the area again. On the positive side, we finally have a leader who both knows what we need to compete internationally and is committed to doing something about it.”
   According to Becker, urban wind turbines like the ones he invented and other sources of energy that are clean and energy efficient are part of what could become the re-industrialization of America, creating jobs that can't be outsourced.
   “You’re not going to have someone make solar panels in China and install them here,” says Becker, whose son and daughter also work for the business.
   But even though it seems to be generally agreed that we need to become more energy independent, there are the “Drill, Baby, Drill” groups who think that the way to do this is to drill for oil in the United States.. “If we are addicted to oil, a change in suppliers won’t cure us,” Becker writes on Solveclimate.com/blog. “On the flip side of $145 oil is an enormous opportunity to finally make the switch to cleaner and more sustainable energy supplies and to a future in which our jobs no longer are vulnerable to a blockade in the Strait of Hormuz, or vandalism in Nigeria, or a cutoff by Iran, or some other little tremor in the world oil market.”
   Aeroturbines aren’t anything like windmills. They are helix-shaped and can be either vertical or horizontal. They attach to buildings and almost become part of the architectural design (hence the name of the company). Plus they have the benefit of being bird-friendly.
   “We had an ornithologist look at our equipment, and he said that the turbine doesn't spin so fast that is it transparent,” says Becker. “That’s where birds get in trouble. They dive for something that is transparent. The wind turbines also have reflections, and birds don't like that, particularly predatory birds.” (Becker also notes that cats kill about one to two million birds a year, which is more than any machine out there.)
   “Buildings kill birds, but they learn and teach their young,” says Becker, who posits that birds are much smarter than we think.  “Migration patterns show that they avoid tall buildings.”
   And though Becker certainly doesn’t want any birds to die because of his turbines, he's quick to point out that the ornithologist asked if they had looked at the sourcing for the “turbines kill birds” non-profit organization, and when they did, it turned out the group was a front for coal companies, though more birds die from coal ash in their lungs than get caught up in wind turbines.
   “There are so many levels of disinformation piled up there,” Becker says. “This is what happens when vested interests try to divide environmentalists from wind energy companies.”
   Hopefully, the time for Becker's innovative products have come.  His aeroturbines are already on some Chicago buildings, including at the top of Helmut Jahn’s Mercy House Lakefront SRO at 1244 North Clybourn Avenue.
   “Clean energy will bring more jobs to this country,” says Becker. “Renewable energy is homeland security.”

Published: February 07, 2010
Issue: February 2010 Innovation Issue