The CANArts Inventions: Upcycling Meets Energy Needs

by Larry Gabriel

Satellite dishes look like flowers as they spin in the gentle wind. The metal blossoms whirl hypnotically above the privacy fence, indicating a wonderland to passersby on Gratiot Avenue. But the whimsical hardware visible from behind the fencing is indicative of a much more functional proposal.

These ‘low-altitude wind turbines’ displayed throughout Carlos Nielbock’s CAN Arts Handworks compound turn incessantly– only a stone’s throw from Eastern Market and his pending Wind Turbine Project. Nielbock’s project showcases the potential of windmills to harness energy, the wisdom of upcycling readily available materials, and the importance of creating work that empowers communities.

Nielbock’s wind turbine will power a charging station for the electronic devices of visitors to Eastern Market and pump rainwater to irrigate a garden on the Market grounds. Nielbock says that the turbine will be the first application of a Detroit-built and designed, alternative energy device for the community.

Nielbock learned his metalsmith skills from a Catholic monk in Germany. He has plied his trade at the Fox and Fisher theaters as well as in upscale homes of the Detroit area. He has completed major refurbishments in centuries-old churches replete with stained-glass windows and gold-plated crosses. He has studied West African metalworking techniques from centuries past. He believes his metalsmith skills taught by master craftsman around the city are a key to the realization of a sustainable economy.

 

“My windmills [have been] spinning for eight years, through all the seasons, through all the storms, through all the power outages,” he says. “My windmills are performing, which gives me the greatest satisfaction. But I want to go even beyond this, because this is not about personal satisfaction. This thing turned out to be so good and beyond expectations. It will really present a platform for innovation. To look at new concepts of education and new concepts of creating things that are necessary and be the ones who are manufacturing and reaping the benefits of that as a community. The Detroit-built windmill, that employs Detroiters, with the know-how to harness the winds, with the stuff we have all around us already in abundance. “

The windmill is an old way of generating power for things that are key to Detroit’s future — high tech, green infrastructure, job skills and, perhaps most important in the short run, upcycling.

The first law of upcycling, Nielbock declares, is, “work with what you have available, period. Recognize the resources that are all around you. The other thing is, have the skilled trades to utilize them for your goals, products and projects.”

As a totem for the possibilities of his ideas, it’s hard to imagine a better location than Eastern Market. The Detroit landmark was established in the 1850s when Detroit was a much smaller place and technology was concentrated on the riverfront in service to the Great Lakes shipping trade. Over 150 years later, the market is still vital. Neilbock’s windmill will be seen by tens of thousands of people as they pass through on market days.

But Nielbock points out that exposure to a wider audience is just one step toward transforming the current monopoly on valuable resources, both material and intellectual.  He wants to create a product that is needed in new and upcoming markets– a product that could be the catalyst to spark a new economy all by itself.

“The opportunity is here, to create an industry, right where the market is, with the industry that’s already here — the automotive industry — with the land that’s already freely available,” Nielbock continues. “Why not collectively make our mind up that we will produce the new devices of alternative energy by means of upcycling? We already have the highest innovation tools of the industry already at our fingertips. It’s that much cheaper, it’s that much more environmentally friendly, it’s that much easier to operate and so on.”

That’s what Nielbock does with his satellite dishes, wheel hubs, and light pole  fixtures the city is so busy replacing these days. Unfortunately the city is mostly selling these items as scrap to be melted down and recycled into new products, creating a huge energy footprint.

Nielbock insists that it would be better to reuse them as they are, saving the energy expended in the recycling process, and appreciating the resources, skills and labor that went into creating them in the first place.

“Detroit was like the Paris of America, and there were only the finest things in the landscape, and the top-of-the-line innovations,” says Nielbock.  “If you would establish the true value of these light poles, and how much they’re worth, the true value, whatever, $80,000, $40,000 per light, times 88,000 throughout the whole city, in your neighborhood, however many hundreds or thousands are there … and make sure that the work to restore those lamps is done by the people who live where the light poles are, problem solved.”

Previous generations already paid for the street light poles, he insists. Why not reuse them instead of throwing them away for scrap?  Light poles, which this artisan has been collecting, serve as the tower that holds up the spinning rotor on the low-altitude turbines he wants to see used in Detroit. This is far more cost efficient than the typical industrial wind turbine, which is over 300 feet high. Each pole must be fabricated new and every installation includes a substructure that costs just as much. Nielbock’s low-altitude turbines, some as short as 20 feet high, make the idea of a cool-looking, artistic windmill in your yard much more feasible and attractive.

Even more enticing is the new type of work Neilbock’s windmill project would bring to community participants. Nielbock says that refitting light fixtures would employ 200 people right away. Most important to Nielbock and the upcycling model, the project would reinvigorate the commitment to the skilled trades required for this type of architectural, ornamental metal work.

“That’s the thing– we want to be on top of the market. The way to do that, again, is upcycling,” Nielbock insists. “By utilizing already existing technologies and already existing lines of production. That’s why the hubs, the gears, and the rotational wheels from the automotive industry are at the heart of my wind turbine. That’s how this is such an evolutionary thing.  This is a platform for development.”

Nielbock experienced upcycling while growing up in post-World War II Germany. He is the child of a white German mother and an African American World War II soldier. Born in 1949, Nielbock witnessed the city of Berlin pull itself together after the carpet-bombing of the city that helped bring the war to an end.

“The model of that is Germany, the country where I’m from, that reinvented itself,” he says of reusing materials. “The people not only had to rethink their entire philosophies and everything they’d learned up until that point, and give that up and declare those as null and void to start off on a new slate. When you’re looking at the pile of rubble, and there’s not one brick on top of the other, and there is not a man around that is able to do the work and only the old women, the old men and the children are there to clean the bricks and pile them up by the side of the road.”

Germany recovered from the war and became an economic juggernaut, starting materials upcycled from the rubble. That lesson sticks with Nielbock, who came to the United States to search for his father in Detroit when he was 25 years old. “I was a white man until 1984,” he quips.

In Detroit, Nielbock found his black family and a new home to ply his Old World trade.  “Those skilled trades cannot be obsolete, it cannot be that this has no value, no merit,” he says. “You can apply those skilled trades to modern requirements. That gives you the ability to create things that are your concepts and realize them by means of blacksmithing, forging, wood-carving, you name it, brickwork, masonry, like the mastery that built this Paris of North America that I saw all around.”

The wind turbine also fits neatly into the idea of green infrastructure. Detroit was the wonder of the industrial world a century ago, using the assembly line to put the world on wheels, introducing standardization and uniformity of products. It also spread pollution wherever it went with its dependencies on oil and coal to fuel automation.

Now is the time for the cleanup. Not only does the wind turbine upcycle products that are already in our environment, it doesn’t generate more pollution. Nielbock argues that the wind turbine may be used with both high technology and the down-to-earth practice of urban agriculture.

As farming becomes more prevalent across Detroit, upcycling the land and managing water become more important. While rain barrels dot the city for watering gardens, larger parcels will require farmers to move larger quantities of water. Wind turbines might become a key way to interface the city’s management of storm water drainage with farmers who need to irrigate crops. Nielbock is even working on increasing the turbine’s ability to generate electricity. His current focus is on increasing his windmill’s capacity to generate electricity by incorporating generators from hybrid cars.

“When I learned about hybrid technology, how the new cars, having two generators that propel you through the landscape, that are working in sync with a regular combustion motor, but altogether generate much more power, enough to power a six-story building, that made me think right away and I got one of those transaxles from the junkyard, took it apart, and now I’m at the point to merge that with my windmills.  More upcycling, more tapping into already existing production lines; not increasing the carbon footprint; getting away from recycling and melting stuff down.”

Detroit has had its own meltdown these past few decades. Is it possible that the Motor City could come back as the city of wind turbines, with the insight and direction that only community ownership can produce?

The Knight Arts Challenge is willing to see where the idea could go. The program has granted the Eastern Market Wind Turbine project $50,000. Nielbock has to raise another $50,000 in matching funds. So far, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation is willing to contribute $25,000. CAN Arts raising the rest of the cash through a crowdfunding appeal at www.patronicity.com/detroitwindmill.

 

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