Carlos Nielbock's "I Love the D" sculpture
This story has been updated with the amount of installations planned citywide.
In the backyard of CAN Art Handworks Sculpture Park & Detroit Windmill Wind Turbine Farm on Wilkins Street near Eastern Market, a red sculpture spells out "I Love the D."
The sign’s creator, master craftsman Carlos Nielbock, explains the sculpture, made out of found objects sourced from an old car assembly line, is designed to showcase the pieces’ functionality and quality. It’s the German-born artist’s particular homage to his adopted hometown of Detroit.
The sculpture sits amid bright red windmills spinning in the crisp winter air and the vertical garden soaring above the property. For Nielbock, this particular work symbolizes the city’s residents and their spirit.
“We are so resilient in Detroit. We adapt to anything that’s coming down the pike,” he says.
Nielbock is planning to power the sculpture with one of his windmills to light up at night. This piece is the culmination of Nielbock’s work and passions spanning decades ever since he first came to the Motor City in 1984, encompassing Detroit’s history of innovation, art, and architecture, the skilled trades and preservation, and his vision of what green energy could look like, with Detroit leading the movement.
“Henry Ford made the car here in Detroit, right?” he says of the Model T. “We can claim to create the new green energy here in Detroit if we just come up with a better mousetrap,” he says.
And now, Nielbock is one step closer to building that better mousetrap.
For more than a decade, the artist and entrepreneur has been researching and developing low-altitude urban wind turbines — fashioned out of upcycled materials like truck axles, satellite dishes, and light poles — that also function as public art. Now that he has a patent on his unique designs, the next step is to bring his innovative green energy technology to the neighborhoods.
“I received my patent design pattern to substantiate all of my ideas and inventions. And right now, I'm looking to optimize the potential,” he says.“I'm trying to be viable within this sprawling city, which we all are looking for in this renaissance. And I think green energy is really the way to go.”
Carlos Nielbock stands in his workshop at CAN Art Handworks. From Germany to Detroit
Nielbock was born in Germany to a German mother and African American soldier. Interracial marriages were illegal, so Nielbock’s father was sent back to America, and Nielbock stayed behind with his mother. It wasn’t until Nielbock came looking for his father in Detroit in 1984 at age 24 that he saw him again. By then, he had already learned his craft.
“I only had to see this blacksmith guy one time, strike the hammer one time,” he recalls of the transformative experience that sent him down the path of a master craftsman. “It just changed my life when I was 15 years old. I never did anything else other than metalwork.”
After settling in Detroit, his skills and talents led to working on some of Detroit’s most iconic sites, such as the Fox Theatre, Historic Fort Wayne, and the old City Hall Building, which Nielbock says is his “prime example of excellence, art, understanding, direction and community” in Detroit.
Over the years, he began to recognize the need to preserve and upcycle pieces of historical Detroit buildings such as stained glass windows, beautiful railings, and other ornate structures. At the same time, he witnessed the economic decline and saw people in his eastside neighborhood deprived of opportunity and access to education. Through his knowledge of skilled trades, he began teaching the younger generation in the skilled trades through the organization he founded, CAN Art Handworks.
He wants to pass on his skills and knowledge to those “laying dormant in the neighborhoods right now, having no chance of being integrated into what's going on right here in this city development. The city is coming back, but it is an academic responsibility to provide opportunities for people.”
Growing up in Germany, he says, “I understand those dynamics, I understand the power of what lies within prior generations that pass on skills and attributes in an interactive type of situation. It is so important to set those values and maintain them over generations.”
He wants to provide Detroiters with the exposure he had at age 15 when he saw the blacksmith putting iron in the fire and fashioning it into a beautiful object. And he believes developing green energy is a path Detroiters can take.
“We are on the verge of creating a new image for ourselves from the most bankrupt city. We really have it in our hands right now, to [develop green energy] in a sophisticated way, in a sustainable way,” he says. But it requires someone to show them the way. “There are people who are so self-motivated and have that talent within. But if you don't show them, they don't have that exposure. You don't provide the exposure; you never unleash the talent.”
Nielbock’s answer is his neighborhood-scale windmill. It’s not the mass-produced three-blade structure often seen in rural areas. His design harnesses both solar and wind power. It operates on a microgrid
to fulfill the local community’s needs while reducing reliance on the main power grid, which is vulnerable to power outages. That
can be crucial in times of crisis like blackouts, providing power to critical buildings when the main grid fails. For communities, it can mean they can be more energy-independent.
Carlos Nielbock's design harnesses both solar and wind power and operates on a microgrid to fulfill the local community’s needs while reducing reliance on the main power grid, which is vulnerable to power outages. For communities, it can mean they can be more energy-independent.
He designed the windmills to function in small-scale settings that have fewer wind resources. They can operate at wind speeds of fewer than half a mile an hour instead of large-scale windmills, which need at least 12 mile-per-hour wind speeds to function.
The electricity produced by Nielbock’s windmills is then stored in a battery system that powers the microgrid.
Building the Green Energy Village
In recent years through grants and collaborations, Nielbock’s vision has started to take shape, with the construction and installation of two windmills in Eastern Market down the street nearly three years ago.
It’s about not reinventing the wheel, he says, but taking what has been executed already, building upon it, and collaborating and engaging in practitioners and academics “in a cultural exchange to work on these pilot projects, to put certain things back together.”
One of those partners was Paul Draus and his colleagues at the University of Michigan Dearborn.
In the late 2000s, Draus and his research partner Juliette Roddy, both professors at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, were walking around the east-side neighborhood and spotted Nielbock’s windmills.
Draus, an urban sociologist whose early research focused on substance abuse before evolving to explore the substance abuse itself and the recovery process, began looking at the dynamics of a neighborhood and its impact on the people who live there.
While neighborhoods outside of the booming downtown core struggle with unemployment, disinvestment, and other challenges, “inside every one of these neighborhoods, you also see that there are people that are fighting against this, pushing back on the limitations of what their environment might predict and seeking ways to redefine those environments,” Draus says.
It was around the time of the collapse of the economy during the Great Recession. Nielbock — drawing upon his training and experience in Germany and his study of the American windmill — started to develop the idea of the windmill as a catalyst to create change not just in his neighborhood but also in Detroit upcycling, skilled trades, and green energy.
Nielbock received a Knight Arts Challenge grant in partnership with the nonprofit Eastern Market Corporation to create two wind turbines: a cellphone charging station near Shed 5 and another to help irrigate crops at the Market Farm near the Dequindre Cut.
Since Nielbock was already working on the Eastern Market project, Draus and his team wrote and landed a $10,000 Catalyst grant
to study the amount of energy produced and to explore how to scale up the Green Energy Village
project, a partnership between researchers from U-M Dearborn and community partners CAN Art Handworks (CAH) and Eastern Market Corporation.
The project helped Nielbock secure a patent, develop a standardized set of diagrams to enable the production of electrical storage units for future installations, measure and record wind power output
, and engage and educate the community on the potential of wind turbines.
The goal was to get a step closer to the bigger vision of installing enough windmills to generate enough energy for people to utilize locally. At the same time, they create jobs and repurposing materials that would otherwise end up in the trash.
That vision is a long way off due to funding, so right now, Draus is working on another grant to do a test installation in an alleyway on the city’s northwest side. The plan is to light up the alleyway and help power rainwater harvesting.
“To me, the potential is not only as a very real, mechanical, tangible device that does something,” Draus says, “but also what it represents in terms of taking pieces of the environment, discarded materials, and creating and turning them into something that is of a real, tangible benefit to people in that neighborhood while employing people at the same time.”
Carlos Nielbock aims to install 10 windmills throughout the Detroit community.
The potential of green energy
While Nielbock’s turbines are small in scale compared to those being developed by the larger utility companies, his design addresses some of the challenges those big wind farms face, from the aesthetics to combining solar and wind in one device.
He's planning 100 installations citywide, with 10 windmills in communities around the city from the North End to the east side in the works for this year.
One of those planned installations is Hope Park on the west side. Hope Park started as a project initiated by students at Cody Rouge High School and evolved into a partnership with Youth Energy Squad, a program of EcoWorks Detroit
. The nonprofit works to create equitable solutions to address climate change and community sustainability. Several years ago, students were exploring ways to revitalize abandoned property across from the high school. Through community engagement, they came up with the idea to create a park.
Josh Musicant, STEM and career development coordinator with Youth Energy Squad, says the students wanted to make the park attractive and stand out. “The windmill accomplishes that in and of itself, and they also figure that using the energy it generates to power either lights, Wi-Fi, or music will make the park more valuable to the community.”
Bryan Lewis, executive director of EcoWorks Detroit, says the windmill is “a centerpiece to the community that brings pride and curiosity about renewable energy and community sustainability.”
“Seeing that in your neighborhood is something that builds curiosity and pride,” he says, adding it can “ also facilitate more engagement because people are excited about seeing something [like the windmimill] in the community and can understand renewable energy in a different way.”
Musicant says the windmill should be installed this summer, depending on when the city opens up to facilitate the permitting process.
Each windmill would be unique to the community and fulfill specific needs, Nielbock says. For example, at an urban farm, the windmill will pump water to irrigate crops, or at a public park and events space, the windmill will provide power for Wi-Fi and charging for cellphones and laptops.
The wind energy industry is growing. Wind is the largest source of renewable electricity generation in the United States, providing more than 7.4% of the country’s electricity and growing
Michigan ranks 13th in the nation for installed wind energy capacity and 14th for the number of turbines installed
. DTE is the state’s largest investor in and producer of wind energy, according to the utility. Consumers Energy started developing the wind farm in 2013 and now has four wind energy farms in the state that can produce enough clean, renewable energy to power about 249,600 residents
But even though the cost of wind power has decreased dramatically in the past several decades, wind projects must be able to compete economically with the lowest-cost source of electricity, and some locations may not be windy enough to be cost-competitive.
Most sites are in remote locations far from cities, which have greater electricity needs. Turbines can also contribute to noise pollution caused by the turbine blades and have a negative visual impact on its environment. Wind is also variable while power needs are 24/7.
“It is a subject-oriented design; it is a microgrid that is made for that purpose to function, no more, no less,” he says.
Green energy presents “so much opportunity for the younger generation … to really be the master of green energy in a responsible way,” he says. But they have their work cut out for them.
“When I talk to people in my generation, it’s like they do not really realize that we used up the planet so completely, and the resources that create our wealth, the beautiful cars and the houses and the sub developments and all that stuff you see it came at the price of the planet, we used it all up to create all of that. What [will the next generation and their children] use to have the same standard and enjoy the same things that we enjoy right now when we used everything up?
“So thinking along those lines make me even more driven to come up with a sustainable model.”