Bill Becker: Urban Wind Visionary
Marla Donato
December 19, 2005

Bill Becker: Urban Wind Visionary

By Marla Donato / Conscious Choice Magazine

Bill Becker has a new spin on wind-power. Vertical-axis "egg-beater" machines are cheap and adaptable to city landscapes. Credit: Conscious Choice magazine.
Nothing is ordinary about Bil Becker, including the way he spells his first name. With his white hair, ruddy complexion and engaging smile, he resembles Kris Kringle minus the extra-wide paunch and beard. It's an apt description because Becker, 63, presides over a workshop where he hopes to make dreams come true.

But the workshop is not exactly located in Disney World. It's tucked away in the heart of Pilsen on a South Side street decorated with weeds that poke through sidewalk cracks and broken glass that crunches under car tires. Inside the nondescript three-story brick building, Spanish-speaking laborers are assembling wire fences on one side for Illinois Engineered Products.

On the other side is Becker. He climbs the flights of stairs past twisted metal contraptions that stand a few feet taller than a man. On a table are colorful items that resemble hassock-sized beanbags with visors. They are actually portable solar ovens, one of Becker's early inventions. Scattered about are displays featuring twisted periscopes with diamond kaleidoscope glass. These are skylights. But Becker is mainly interested in showing off what's on the roof -- his favorite latest brainchild -- an urban turbine that he says can harness and convert to electricity the downtown winds that bounce off buildings and pavements.

Becker, an associate professor and coordinator in Industrial Design at the University of Illinois Chicago, is one of a handful of inventors worldwide working on harnessing urban wind currents. He's the driving force behind a company called Becker Renewable Energy, which is the design coordinator for Aerotecture Projects, with a stated mission of "building integrated natural energy systems worldwide."

It's not such a far-fetched idea. The new-style wind turbines are already operating as far away as Europe and as close as Chicago's West Side, where a European model has been partnered with a solar panel to help power the lights and pumps that circulate the water in Humboldt Park's rejuvenated creek and lagoon.

Becker squeezes through a window and pops out onto the building's long flat roof. In the distance, the Sears Tower looms. The nearby Fisk power plant emits a steady thick stream of gray smoke. Becker nods toward the smoke-belching plant, declaring that his dream is to do away with the need for coal-burning, in his quest to create a no-emissions world.

Becker's future dream world is filled with all sorts of flashy whirligigs: colorful solar panels and whirling wind machines that resemble DNA models, just like the one gently spinning on the roof. It has no blades, just a large twisting spiral in a rounded column of tubular steel struts. In Becker's vision, every building is outfitted with plenty of these contraptions and solar panels so that they, in essence, become "zero energy," existing off the grid, even in what's supposed to be the crowded urban center of it. Instead of connecting to a big centralized power source, each building would be self-sufficient with its own individual power supply. This would change the energy supply paradigm from a centralized one to an individual sustainable one, even in the city.

Future Ecological Villages
It's all part of a vision that started with Becker's exposure to philosopher/visionary/engineer R. Buckminster Fuller during Becker's college years at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Fuller opened up a new world vision for Becker, who grew up in the Rogers Park neighborhood, and then moved to Wilmette at the age of 11 when his father, a real estate appraiser, found his talents in high demand by the insurance industry. Becker said he "fell in love" with Fuller's ideas, such as: "Democracy does not function without enabling technology for the individual."

He became a Fuller disciple, working with him intermittently between 1966 and 1982, and then went out into the world hoping to create Fuller's vision of "future ecological villages."

He set out to enable individuals through technology, and spent stints designing Airstream trailers in Toledo, Ohio; low-cost manufactured housing near Elkhart, Ind. and Chevrolet's ill-fated Corvair in a GM facility in Warren, Mich. Becker claims what really did the Corvair in was not Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed, but rather the car's potential fuel-economy capacity that disturbed the oil companies, who put pressure on GM executives.

"Politics never change, even if you scream and yell. The whole system is easily controlled, but the puppetry (people pulling the strings) can't control new technologies. New technology is like a thin wedge in the door to open up a new way for people to be liberated."

So Becker presses on in his mission to push the envelope of new technology for the cause of liberation. He believes that wind power is "the best bet to lead the renewable energy charge andhellip; because wind technology is at the highest level of all renewables for pounds of materials invested per energy return."

Today, scattered among the technical charts in his portfolio, is a bevy of projects, completed and proposed. There's a building permit for a wind turbine and photovoltaic system that went on a small Round Lake business, photos of his wind turbine towering over a Midwest renewable energy fair, an architect's renderings for an Evanston residence with urban turbines horizontally tucked along the peak of its A-frame. Each turbine costs about $10,000 to install and generates about 4,000 kWh per year, which is enough to provide 50 percent of the power needs of an energy efficient home, Becker said.

It's a Family Affair
Becker's enthusiasm is contagious, and he travels around the city and to out-of-state energy fairs with an interesting assortment of folks. He has recruited his two adult children to help him bend, mold and assemble the plastic on the turbines. Illinois Engineered Products manufactures most of the components. His wife, Lesleigh Lippitt, works in the third floor factory office meeting with clients and coordinating his promotional materials including elaborate power-point presentations. He travels with an assistant who speaks glowingly about him and carries canvas bags filled with notebooks and papers as well as glass jars of ice tea, hunks of cheese, fruit and a small cutting board and knife. All of which can emerge in the middle of an interview in someone else's office.

Test AeroTurbine units have been running in Pilsen since 2002, but most are located nationwide outside of Chicago in places such as the Randall Museum in San Francisco; a retreat in Taos, N.M., and at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis. The Chicago Dept. of Environment, as well as the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, have provided grant support for installations and research.

Becker has signed on to see to some of the energy needs of a non-profit Lakefront Supportive Housing project being designed by architect Helmut Jahn.

These cheap and efficient windpower-generators can be installed on the rooftops of skyscrapers, homes, or even on the Golden Gate Bridge. Credit: Aerotecture.
The Vertical Axis Debate
But it hasn't all been hobnobbing with the architect jet-set. Becker has had his share of setbacks and critics. Among them, is Mick Sagrillo, a Wisconsin-based wind energy expert, who has been highly critical of vertical axis turbines which are similar to Becker's designs. Sagrillo labeled vertical axis turbines as "half-baked at best" in writings.

But Becker said his design is a better modified version of early vertical axis machines.

"Mick hasn't seen any of our machines in action. We want him to come and see our machines and once he does we think he'll be convinced that we do a royal job," said Becker.

Becker's has done his own experiments with more conventional propeller machines. An early windmill with propellers, erected in Evanston in the early 1980s on McCormick Road just west of Green Bay Road, had problems.

It had "limited use and scary performance" because it had the capacity to over-spin and come off the tower in high winds, said Becker, who then went back to the drawing board. The lessons he learned from that project helped him to arrive at his current design: the omni-directional AeroTurbine. The new AeroTurbines are designed to self-start and can not "run away," or spin off their towers. They can mount either vertically or horizontally, partner easily with solar, are nearly noise and vibration free, bird friendly and, Becker points out, "beautiful in motion."

Beauty is also a large part of his vision. In the eyes of Bil Becker, one Aerotecture writing tells us beauty entails going on a "neighborhood walk andhellip; looking up at the rooftops at a growing number of new urban wind machines dancing in the wind and generating power for the buildings beneath."

For more information:
Bil Becker, Aerotecture, Ltd., Rural Research Site, 2155 Wolpers Road, Park Forest, Illinois 60466. (262) 642-4707.

Marla Donato is the editor of
Conscious Choice magazine.

© 2005 CONSCIOUS CHOICE, 920 N. Franklin, Suite 202, Chicago, IL 60610 (312) 440-4373.

To see a vertical-axis machine in operation, click on the following video.
Propellers and Aeroturbines Compared

Propellers -- work well in rural settings with steady unidirectional winds.

Aeroturbines -- work well in urban settings with variable direction and gusting winds.

Propellers -- must have high profile towers above trees, buildings, and other obstructions.

Aeroturbines -- can have low visible profiles on rooftops and/or within other structures.

Propellers -- require special zoning and code exemptions and high insurance rates in suburbs/cities.

Aeroturbines -- require no special code or zoning exemptions or high insurance premiums in suburbs/cities.

Propellers -- operate best in rural settings where noise, visibility, and vibration are less problematic.

Aeroturbines -- operate well in suburbs/cities where low noise, low visibility, and low/no vibration are mandatory.

Propellers -- require major investments for large structural towers and open space for tower and ice 'fall down.'

Aeroturbines -- require minimum structural tower investments with no tower or ice 'fall down' concerns.

Propellers -- at high speed can become 'invisible' and kill birds while also creating noise/vibration disturbances.

Aeroturbines -- are low speed, caged, and are, therefore, easily seen by wildlife, creating no/minimal disturbances.

Propellers -- are complex, with high vibration, requiring frequent inspection/repair with high maintenance costs.

Aeroturbines -- are simple, with low vibration, requiring infrequent inspection/repair with low maintenance costs.

Propellers -- require costly, complex, control and safe breaking devices to avoid 'runaway.'

Aeroturbines -- are low-cost, simple, and self-regulating, using their inherent geometry to prevent 'runaway' without special controls.

Propellers -- cannot be mounted to roofs without special tower/noise/vibration provisions.

Aeroturbines -- can be mounted to roofs without special provisions and support PVs and other renewables without vibration/noise concerns.

Propellers -- start generating power in higher wind speeds (9 mph and above) and must furl blades or slow their spin speed in very high winds (45 mph and above).

Aeroturbines -- self-regulate and start generating power in low wind speeds (6 mph and above) and continue generating in winds exceeding 70 mph.

Propellers -- cannot be easily fitted within structural safety cages, towers, or architectural surrounds.

Aeroturbines -- are designed to fit within a great variety of 'architectural surrounds' and within cages/towers.

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