Winds of Change in Kosovo

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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 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 last year when Carl Lundgren, a professor of manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology, traveled with a dozen RIT students to Pristina and met with AUK students. The class assignment as part of the AUK 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 for Kosovo’s farmers

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 in January. KWG plans to ramp up sales in the first quarter of 2012.

“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.

One problem KWG confronted was paying for regular energy production audits for their turbines. Typically, this is an expensive process in which an auditor has to manually check each one. No problem, said Turner and Team KWG. The team developed a data acquisition system that monitors the turbines’ power outputs and then sends the data through a cell-phone signal to a central server in Pristina. Data is aggregated and sold to carbon trading markets, a reward for offsetting carbon emissions. KWG is making this software open source in order to assist other small renewable energy companies, giving access to the valuable carbon trading market.

Entrepreneurship in Europe’s youngest country

Kosovo Wind Gardens’ innovation and creativity led to it being internationally recognized this past spring 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 this spring 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, KWG’s 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.”