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Pioneering idea lures Cukurs to Boulder

UNITED STATES: Boulder Wind Power has managed to tempt former Suzlon Wind Energy chief executive Andy Cukurs to join the company. The seasoned wind veteran said he jumped ship because he was intrigued by the company's innovative drive-train technology.

"It's an interesting new technology. It's an elegant solution," he said of Boulder's air core, modular, direct-drive generator. Other job possibilities he encountered had been at start-ups with technology that "defied the laws of physics", he recalled, or that had technology he was not familiar with, such as battery storage.

In addition, Cukurs knew the reputation of Sandy Butterfield, co-founder of Boulder and former chief engineer of the National Wind Technology Centre at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Nor will moving to Boulder - with its 25 employees - be that unusual for Cukurs. He clearly likes building up smaller companies. When he came to Suzlon in 2004, the company's US subsidiary had just been founded. During Cukurs' tenure, Suzlon built up a total installed capacity - both constructed and scheduled - of more than 2.5GW in North America. Prior to that, he was CEO of NEG Micon in America, until after its takeover by Vestas in 2004.

Big expansion

Boulder, he said, should expand greatly in the next 18 months. By December, it will have finished testing the first full-size version of its generator at a test bench in Montana. And by end-2013, it will have prototypes of the generator - a 3MW 120-metre design for Class II winds - operating in turbines.

Boulder has already collaborated with "a few" original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) "to establish their parameters" for incorporating Boulder's axial-flux permanent magnet generator (PMG), which has a printed circuit-board (PCB) stator, said Cukurs. He declined to name the OEMs.

Cukurs notes that Boulder's design should mean a levelised cost of energy 10-20% lower than that of current state-of-the-art turbines. Industry observers say that Boulder's drive-train could be a "disruptive" technology - an innovation that disrupts the existing market and creates a new technology market.

Most interesting is Boulder's use of a PCB stator, said Bill Erdman, the respected head of DNV's cleaner energy unit in the US. A PCB stator would be less labour-intensive than a conventionally wound stator. Replacement during operations and maintenance should be easier, he said.

Setting up PCB manufacturing can be capital-intensive. Cukurs said that many firms can already make the PCBs needed. "Clearly, dedicated lines will make the boards even more cost effective, so long-term partnerships will be important," he said.

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