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In the Race for Cheaper Energy, Richard Sutz's Superwindmill Wins in a Breeze

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The gentlest of breezes will turn Wind Baron on

At first glance the two windmills side by side on the Navaho reservation near Window Rock, Ariz, look alike. Each is 40 feet high with blades 16 feet in diameter and of traditional design. But there’s one obvious difference: In the light breeze that usually blows across this plain, one spins, the other doesn’t. That, Richard K. Sutz is convinced, is why his Wind Baron windmill will soon be whirling in water-and power-starved countries around the world. And, for the third or maybe fourth time in his life, he will be rich.

“The idea is really stupidly simple,” Sutz says happily. “Winds over 15 mph occur less than 25 percent of the time over the earth’s surface, and old windmills won’t turn below 12 to 15 mph. What I’ve done is a quantum leap from the standard windmill.” Sutz apparently isn’t full of hot air. He sold 12 of his machines to the Navahos for $12,500 each, raised $4 million in venture capital, is producing 200 Wind Barons a year in his factory in Phoenix and has a backlog of orders.

The key to the Wind Baron’s difference is a counterbalancing device like, the ones used on elevators. Because the finely balanced weights need only a slight impetus to be set in motion, a Wind Baron can, for instance, pump water up 1,500 feet in a breeze as light as 2½ mph—”a wind you can’t even feel on your face,” Sutz says.

He chose to test his prototype on the Navaho reservation because of its meager winds and because, although the first windmill was built in 7th-century Persia, the Navahos now use about 1,800 windmills over a 25,000 square mile area. That’s a greater concentration than anywhere else on earth. “But they can’t pump for six months a year, forcing the tribe to spend $1 million to haul in water,” Sutz says. “And they still don’t have enough.” A study by Texas A&M University concluded that at wind speeds under 10 mph, the Wind Baron pumped at least 13 times as much water as a conventional windmill. Sutz, 49, has been building things most of his life. Son of a grocery store manager in Chicago, “I grew up with a hammer in my hand,” he says. “I never invented anything I couldn’t make.” At 13 he invented a slow-pour spout for bottled juices and wrote the president of Rea-Lemon about it. The executive, after turning him down because they already had a similar spout, sent his mother a case of the product. “From then on,” Sutz says, “my career was selling ideas to people for money.”

After graduating from Illinois Institute of Technology in mechanical engineering, he went into the Navy and devised a safer oxygen valve for pilots. In 1961 he started his free-lance inventing career in Switzerland and married his Swiss secretary (they were divorced in 1976 and he is raising their two boys). He now holds patents on more than 140 devices, including a folding fishing rod, an IUD for cows to help control India’s cattle population, parts for diving gear for Jacques Cousteau and even a women’s garter. Most of his inventions earned him a lot of money, but the fishing rod failed because “I didn’t capitalize on the market.” He worked for the Arizona State Energy Office from 1971 to 1974 and headed the federal Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) in Washington from 1974 to 1978. “I was too opinionated to make a good bureaucrat,” he says.

At ERDA many designs for improving windmill efficiency came across his desk. They didn’t involve his counterweight system, but they did catalyze Sutz’s thinking.

While the six million working windmills in the U.S. before 1930 have now dwindled to 150,000, oil prices have prompted renewed interest in wind power. There are now at least 20 federally funded research projects in the field. To encourage the use of alternate energy sources, federal law now requires utility companies to buy power from individuals who build windmills for electric power. Some projects envision huge windmills 100 yards in diameter on multiacre “wind farms.” Sutz’s invention is more modest but—at a projected cost of $15,000 per Wind Baron—more affordable. And Sutz is convinced that though he has only used his windmill to pump water, it is easily adaptable for producing low-wattage electricity. After all, he insists, “The windmill is the most rugged, reliable, maintenance-free piece of equipment ever made.”