Winds of change

Class assignment becomes solution for energy independence in Kosovo




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Lum Citaku

Kosovar dairy farmer Zeqir Lalinovci faces daily electricity blackouts. He turned to RIT students for help.

Silicon Valley. The Big Apple. Singapore. It’s location, location, location for young entrepreneurs striving for success.

So what would a team of RIT innovators find promising in dairy farms located in Kosovo?

The region in southeast Europe has been ravaged by wars and political instability for centuries. “It could take at least 10 years for Kosovo to stand on its own two feet,” Joost Lagendijk, who oversees Kosovo policy in the European Parliament, told The New York Times in 2008. “Kosovo is a poor agricultural country where the energy supply is chaotic, the rule of law needs to be upheld and the economy is almost starting from scratch.”

But a rebuilding nation—Kosovo declared independence as a sovereign nation in 2008 — is “the ideal opportunity,” say members of the RIT student-led team behind Kosovo Wind Gardens. Kosovo Wind Gardens is a venture that plans to construct and sell wind turbines to individual homes, businesses and farms in the vast rural areas of Kosovo. The small, 5-kilowatt turbines would provide energy independence, an option far better than the daily blackouts due to a poor and aging energy infrastructure, says Adam Walker, Kosovo Wind Gardens executive director.

“KWG was formed as a socially-conscious venture driven to make a difference,” says Walker, a graduate student studying science, technology and public policy in the College of Liberal Arts. “Wind power is cleaner and cheaper. Our turbines have the capacity to offset energy costs, mitigate the effects of blackouts and generate income for our customers from the sale of excess electricity.”

Kosovo Wind Gardens consists of six students representing four RIT colleges, a graduate student from the University of Rochester and two students at the American University in Kosovo, operated by RIT in the capital city of Pristina. The project gained traction in 2010 when Carl Lundgren, a professor of manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology, traveled with a dozen RIT students to Pristina and met with American University in Kosovo students. The class assignment as part of the American University in Kosovo senior capstone project: Examine sustainability and alternative-energy solutions.

Air and water pollution is well documented in the Balkan region due to aging coal-fired power plants; 98 percent of Kosovo’s electricity is produced from burning soft, wet lignite coal. Lung cancer and respiratory diseases are dramatic, and government officials are seeking reform and solutions.

“I could feel the soot in the air while I was out running. Every breath,” says Walker on his nine-week stay in Kosovo this summer.

Making a difference

Kosovo Wind Gardens recognized that most farmers on the Kosovo electric grid are not getting enough energy and are dealing with daily blackouts. They resort to diesel generators to keep dairy milk refrigerated. The farmers are burdened by the high expense and maintenance of the generators.

Kosovo’s energy regulations will allow KWG customers to tap into the national power grid and actually sell excess electricity powered by the turbines located on private lands. “This is attractive for our customers because they can sell electricity at a price higher than what they are charged from the national utility,” says Walker.

By U.S. standards, the dairy farms are small in Kosovo with typically no more than two dozen cows.

Kosovo Wind Gardens is currently working with a Dutch manufacturing firm to build the first generation of wind turbines for the project. The turbines are smaller in stature compared to industrial-size turbines found in the U.S. (50 feet tall to produce 5 kilowatts vs. 375 feet high for 1,000 to 2,000 kilowatt turbines). The team’s first wind turbines will be installed later this year.

“We feel we have found a niche product and solution,” says Josh Turner, KWG technology director. “We can market this to Kosovars who understand the benefits. They will be the stakeholders.”

Turner, a mechanical engineering technology major in the College of Applied Science and Technology, is also designing and developing a new wind turbine, targeted specifically for Kosovo and other developing markets around the globe. He is honing the blade technology in RIT’s Rapid Prototyping Lab, located aptly in Global Village.

Kosovo Wind Gardens also has the opportunity with the Dutch firm to distribute the turbines in the U.S. for use by private-property owners. “This could potentially have legs in New York state or in the U.S. down the line,” says Lundgren. Indeed, Kosovo Wind Gardens is now part of a larger parent company created by the team—Local Energy Technologies.

Entrepreneurship

Kosovo Wind Gardens’ innovation and creativity led to it being internationally recognized in 2011 at the Dell Social Innovation Competition. KWG was awarded a top 15 finish among 1,400 projects representing 86 countries. The team wants to compete again this year and win the $50,000 grand prize, once it can prove its social enterprise is successfully bringing change to Kosovo.

The KWG team sees and feels the excitement brewing in Kosovo. With an average age of 26 years old, Kosovo is home to the youngest population in Europe.

Daniel Driffill, Kosovo Wind Gardens' business manager and a management and finance major in the E. Philip Saunders College of Business, says you can feel a spirit of optimism and enterprise in the Balkan region. “Kosovo is the epicenter,” he says.

Lundgren admires the team’s passion and fortitude. “RIT students are particularly adept at seeing problems as opportunities,” says Lundgren. “Barriers? These students see those as challenges they can overcome.”

An international and multidisciplinary team

Kosovo Wind Gardens is a venture that includes students representing four RIT colleges, the University of Rochester and RIT’s American University of Kosovo.

Lum Citaku ’11, marketing manager. Citaku, of Pristina, Kosovo, graduated from American University in Kosovo last year with a degree in media graphic communications and management.

Daniel Driffill, business manager. Driffill, of Irondequoit, N.Y., is a fourth-year management and finance major in the E. Philip Saunders College of Business.

Shpend Jusufi ’11, energy law manager. Shpend, of Presheva, Serbia, graduated from American University in Kosovo last year with a degree in public policy.

Matthew Munderville, project director. Munderville, of Guilderland, N.Y., is a recent University of Rochester graduate.

Manuel Sosa, sustainability manager. Sosa, of Caracas, Venezuela, is a second-year graduate student in sustainable engineering in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering.

Lindsay Tondryk, market analyst. Tondryk, of Honeoye Falls, N.Y., is a fourth-year international business and marketing major in the E. Philip Saunders College of Business.

Josh Turner, technology director. Turner, of Honeoye Falls, N.Y., is a fifth-year mechanical engineering technology major in the College of Applied Science and Technology.

Adam Walker, executive director. Walker, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is a second-year graduate student studying science, technology and public policy in the College of Liberal Arts. He earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and philosophy from Carnegie Mellon University.

Walker recently won a fellowship through the Kauffman Foundation. The Kauffman Fellows program identifies, develops and networks the next generation of global leaders in the venture capital industry.

He will serve as an apprentice with a venture capital firm and receive executive mentoring.

The RIT/Kosovo Connection

The American University in Kosovo, one of RIT’s three global campuses, was established in 2003 to support and foster economic development in the country after the conflict that saw the former Yugoslavia separated into several independent nations.

The university’s first class of 57 students met in a temporary building that was made possible through financial donations by Kosovar Albanian émigrés.

“I think one of the most important, and possibly interesting, facts is that the university was funded from the donations of the Albanian diaspora,” says James Myers, director of the RIT Center for Multidisciplinary Studies. “It has actually received very little support from the Kosovo or U.S. governments. Its endowment was really a reflection of the national trust of the Albanian Kosovars, who committed over $3 million to establish the university.”

Today, the university is thriving. It is housed in three buildings in a park-like campus in Pristina, the capital city, and there are more than 500 students enrolled in both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Classes focus on business, economics, management, information technology, media and graphic communication and public policy.

With a population of more than 1.8 million people, in an area the size of Connecticut, Kosovo is a dichotomy. The literacy rate of its people is at nearly 90 percent, yet 45 percent of its labor force is unemployed. The majority of American University in Kosovo’s graduates are employed.

“American University in Kosovo has been vital to the economic and political changes taking place in Kosovo. It has educated many of the new political and economic leaders of the country,” Myers says. “RIT should be very proud of helping launch this extraordinary institution.”

201203/kosovo_farmer.jpg

Lum Citaku

Kosovar dairy farmer Zeqir Lalinovci faces daily electricity blackouts. He turned to RIT students for help.

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Shpend Jusufi ’11, the energy law manager for Kosovo Wind Gardens, looks over an aging coal-fired power plant in Kosovo. Kosovo Wind Gardens, a venture that plans to sell wind turbines, was formed by students to improve the pollution problem.