Diffuse Energy- The Wind at Their Backs
Diffuse Energy makes small wind turbines, but they have big goals. We learn how a small wind turbine is going to have a big impact.
“Our vision is to remove diesel generation from small power generation,” says CTO and co-founder James Bradley.
Small and micro-businesses often use small generators powered by solar, batteries or diesel to generate their own power. Diffuse Energy’s goal is to get wind into that mix, and in the process remove diesel from that equation.
“Essentially we have made the world’s most efficient small wind turbine,” Bradley says. “Small wind turbines have been problematic in the past but we’re bringing them to small market groups where they’re really taking off, especially in places in Australia, which is a big country without many people and lots of remote power needs.”
Running poles and wires to those locations doesn’t necessarily make sense because of the cost of maintaining them over such huge distances. What’s more, this year has seen Australia suffer problems with masts burning down, and of course, telecommunications are relied on in a country with such a widespread population, and without power infrastructure, there is no telecommunications infrastructure.
“Energy resilience of telecommunications is important,” Bradley says. “They need remote power and are typically on top of a hill and certainly in Australia, these places are quite remote so getting diesel to them is costly.”
This is where Diffuse Energy’s turbines come on, portable wind turbines that are far more efficient than any other turbine on the market.
“The electrical system is easy to integrate into existing telecommunication systems. They fairly unanimously use a negative 48v system, which is unique to telecommunication, so we made sure we can plug into those systems and avoid integration problems,” Bradley tells us. “We had to make our own electrical system to do that.”
These technical challenges are part and parcel of Diffuse’s work.
“There’s going to be ongoing technical challenges, so there’s often little things challenging from a technical perspective,” Bradley admits.
Fortunately, Diffuse’s small team has an abundance of technical expertise to draw on.
“I guess we’re unique. The three of us are from the University of Newcastle. We’ve got a mechanical engineer and two PhD engineers, so from a technical perspective we’re lucky,” Bradley says. We’ve a deep knowledge of the subject we’re playing with, we’re well placed to see developments as they occur in mini generator technology. We’ve got deep expertise in solving these problems. We’ve also got good help locally from an electronics perspective.”
Diffuse’s team is made up of its three founding members, a part-time advisor and three investors.
“The three of us were working at the university. Josh was doing his PhD and it was my job as the practical engineer to help researchers build their stuff and test it,” Bradley recalls. “So I got involved in making the first prototypes and Sam was part of the wind energy group completing his PhD so when he finished his PhD he worked out he was onto a good thing and we came across a scheme to help researchers commercialise research.”
As Bradley points out, innovation is in no short supply in Australia, but they sometimes have trouble turning those ideas into commercial successes.
“It’s been understood in Australia for a while that we’re good at doing research and terrible at doing things with it!” he jokes. “So this scheme was to help us change the mindset of Australian researchers to think a bit commercially. That rolled into another programme they ran, in which they take ten teams from Australia each year and went from there to form a company and have a crack at it in 2018.”
Diffuse Energy believes strongly in supporting Australian business, and this can be seen in their actions as well as their words.
“We try to use as much local manufacturing as possible,” Bradley says. For example one of our components is rotor-moulded plastic and the company that makes it are very proud that they’re making a part for a super-efficient wind turbine. We’re getting local Australian companies who traditionally make fairly basic parts making components for high technology and they’re chuffed to be involved. More broadly we’ve got a supply chain we’re using to give businesses another source of revenue out of the norm for them.”
Communicating Over COVID
Of course, one challenge no scheme could have prepared Diffuse for was the coronavirus pandemic.
“Like all start-ups, I think at the moment we’re facing uncertainty,” Bradley admits. “Here in Australia, the needle’s moving pretty rapidly as far as what’s allowed in terms of travel, and a lot of customers aren’t actively looking for new projects. Everyone’s keen on the product, but they’re struggling to launch new projects. The biggest effect is there were early supply chain issues, but everyone seems to have got into a groove now.”
The biggest problem, Badley tells us, is communication: “The bigger problem here in Australia is the ability to travel and go and see people, and at the moment the best we can do is do things remotely through phone and Skype. But it’s been pretty challenging communicating with people. When you’ve got a product it’s easier to show people the actual product in person, especially with uncertainty in the market because we need people to go and do things and install things and the workforce is constricted at the moment with people struggling to start new projects.”
It’s a new challenge, and it requires new solutions, but fortunately, that’s precisely what Diffuse Energy was created to find.
“We’re just pushing as much as we can and it just doing changing the way we do things and looking at what’s working and what’s not working trying to understand what we can do differently,” Bradley explains. “There’s no rule book for dealing with this kind of stuff and so time frames just keep pushing and pushing and talking to as many people as possible.”
Looking beyond COVID, Bradley has seen strong demand for Diffuse’s products but believes the way forward may involve a shift in the company’s business model.
“If all goes well from a COVID perspective we’ve lots of people who are keen. We’ve found a huge need for turnkey solutions for remote energy, so further down the track we’ll move to being a solution provider rather than just leasing out the turbines,” he points out. “We can extend that to energy in general, not just wind energy. People are used to buying energy as a service from the grid and there’s no reason not to expand that.”