Ben Polito grew up on an island—bridged to the mainland—but at the remote end of Georgetown Island beyond the reach of CMP’s utility poles for the first seven years of his life.
“Electricity was this cool thing that I saw in kindergarten and the neighbors had,” he recalled.
So he got interested in how electricity makes things work and built small turbines for science projects at Morse High School where he graduated in 1994 before going off to M.I.T. to study mechanical engineering. There he met Joshua Kaufman, an electrical engineer. After graduating college in 1999, the pair of M.I.T. graduates headed west and got jobs making little wind turbines for sailboats—the kind you see on the sterns of many yachts cruising the Maine coast.
Along the way, Polito and Kaufman learned enough to do a good deal of consulting, including designing a wind turbine for the Walker Point family compound in Kennebunkport, known to some as the summer residence of the 43rd POTUS.
As consultants, Polito and Kaufman kept their eye on the backyard wind industry, where they perceived an opportunity to harness their well-paired electrical and mechanical engineering skills to develop more reliable, cost effective wind turbines.
Three years ago, the pair of them founded Pika Energy with Polito the president and Kaufman as the director of research and development and they have been testing their wind turbine designs for the past two and a half years at sites in Cape Elizabeth and Bethel. Now they are on the cusp of producing their first commercial machines that will power your home from a 100-foot tower in your backyard.
“Thirty foot towers,” Polito says, “are not going to cut it.” Any effective turbine, he explains, must be above tree height—generally 70 feet or so in order to intercept a steady supply of wind when it’s blowing.
The goal of Pika Energy’s systems is to make products that make economic sense, not just for true believers or “eccentrics,” to use Polito’s phrase and their plan is to build turbines that will sell for less than their competitors’ and pay their owners back sooner.
Polito points out that the blades on Pika’s turbines, for example, initially made with composites, have recently been replaced by blades made from an injection molding process reducing their cost from $100 to $30 per blade. “You don’t really know how to design stuff until you know how to build stuff,” he says.
Pika has recently moved out of the basement of a duplex house where Polito, Kaufman and their families live into new facilities in a Westbrook industrial park where they have begun scaling up to sell their first energy systems through a network of installers, including HVAC and solar dealers.
Among other patented innovations, Pika has developed sophisticated digital electronic technology that can efficiently integrate the varying loads from wind and solar systems “in an intelligent way,” says Polito recalling his original enthusiasm for electricity as a kindergartner.
Polito is a big believer in locating their business in Maine where everything is much more affordable and there is an ample supply of talent due to the quality of life. “Maine was a backwater when my parents came here,” he recalls, “but the Internet has democratized where you can do innovation.”
Unfortunately, democracy can also be the opponent of innovation as we learned at the end of the current legislative session. During the penultimate hour of the session, the governor, no fan of wind energy, which he considers too costly for Maine people, vetoed a compromise energy plan, unless and until legislators agreed on one last condition. The compromise proposed to trade support for a taxpayer-guaranteed natural gas pipeline favored by Republicans in exchange for increased energy efficiency and a renewed commitment to alternative energy favored by Democrats.
But the governor vetoed the compromise, holding out until the Legislature agreed to an amendment to enable the University of Maine’s floating wind turbine project to negotiate a long term contract with Maine’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC), while simultaneously requiring the PUC to reopen a previously concluded long term agreement with Norwegian energy giant, Statoil, for its pilot offshore wind farm off Boothbay Harbor.
Virtually everyone in Maine wants the university’s floating turbine plan to succeed, including Statoil. The university also wants Statoil’s floating wind project to succeed, because the two are partners in the venture.
In terms of children’s stories, to some the university is the little engine that could, while Statoil is the big bad wolf. The university consortium currently has deployed a one-eighth-scale floating turbine that will collect data off Castine and Monhegan this summer. Statoil has a different design for a floating turbine that has been deployed for almost four years in the North Sea off Norway. The two projects have a lot to learn from each other—and may see an advantage in sharing the risks of such a complicated enterprise.
None of us really knows whether innovations from someone’s backyard like Ben Polito’s, from the university or from an international corporation will ultimately be the most successful. Governments—and politicians—get in trouble when they try to pick local winners or punish outsiders, especially when locals and outsiders see an advantage in cooperating.
Philip Conkling is the founder of the Island Institute. He currently operates Philip Conkling & Associates (conklingassociates.com).