Bonny Doon is hardly the place one thinks of visiting for high-tech thrills. Once an old logging camp, the tiny hamlet northwest of Santa Cruz, California, sits at the end of a country road, past miles of empty beaches and strawberry farms. Hang a left before you reach the vineyard and you find a short dirt track leading to a barn. And then, amid hundreds of acres of redwoods out back, you encounter an avatar of the future—a whirring black gizmo, about the size of a bread box, zipping around overhead. The strange flying object is controlled remotely by a cluster of giggling engineers. Their leader, a tall man with the build of a gazelle, windswept blond hair, and a permanent grin, starts extolling the possibilities of his device before he remembers to introduce himself.
To inventor JoeBen Bevirt, the flying black box holds our clean-energy future, a world in which wind turbines lift off the ground and fly among the clouds. His company, Joby Energy, designs these turbines from scratch. “In order to have truly sustainable energy, we’ve got to beat coal,” he says. “We are going to need game-changing technology. I believe that technology is high-altitude wind.”
In concept his idea makes sense: Wind power from the sky would strip turbines of their expensive, heavy towers and oversize blades, allowing them to collect energy unobtrusively from the richest lode of wind in the world. Winds at an altitude of 30,000 feet carry 20 times as much energy as those near the ground, representing a source of power that could be a fraction of the cost of coal. The challenge, observers say, is keeping such turbines aloft.
“Finding a resource so large is like finding an oil field in your garden,” says Cristina Archer, an environmental engineer at the University of California, Chico, and lead author of a global survey on high-altitude winds. “Plus, you’re saving on material costs by using 100-pound devices floating on air rather than 200 tons of cement for a traditional wind turbine.”
Friends of JoeBen Bevirt say that within 15 minutes of meeting the man, you either love him or hate him. His focused energy, coupled with unusually wide, unblinking blue eyes, can be unnerving. He is friendly but talks at a brisk clip, punching out rapid-fire syllables without breaking eye contact. When seated, he twitches a leg. “You would think he’d had five cups of coffee,” says David Craig, one of Joby Energy’s earliest employees. “He’s pretty intense. But the enthusiasm is contagious.”
Bevirt (who, for the record, is anticaffeine) was a passionate engineer even before he knew what the word meant. “From the time I was a little kid, I wanted to do renewable energy because I grew up without electricity,” he says. Living with his parents in a back-to-the-land community in the Santa Cruz Mountains near where Joby Energy stands today, he recalls “kerosene lamps, no TV, and cooking with propane.”
Bevirt’s lofty aspirations came from his father, Ron (a.k.a. “Hassler”) Bevirt, an early member of the Merry Pranksters, the counterculture pioneers who launched their brand with an epic, acid-fueled bus trip across America in 1964. Hassler was the one who recorded the famous passage in photographs. Generally in charge of equipment, “he was the guy making sure that the sound system worked,” JoeBen Bevirt explains. “They called him Hassler because if there was a hassle, he was on it.” The younger Bevirt’s strange name has a Prankster past too: Joe Ben (“Joby”) Stamper was the angel-faced, transcendent optimist in Sometimes a Great Notion, Prankster Ken Kesey’s novel about loggers in the Oregon woods.
Bevirt took after his father, a master house builder, though the son had a penchant not for dwellings but for smaller, higher kinds of tech. He tinkered with a neighbor’s solar panels, set up mini wind turbines, and adapted generators to run his precious Apple computer. Bevirt spent hundreds of hours cleaning up nails and performing other odd jobs at construction sites to earn enough for the costly mountain bikes and computers that would feed his technology habit as the years went by. By the time he was a freshman in high school, in 1987, he was building those bikes from the ground up.
It was at the University of California, Davis, that Bevirt found his calling, in one of the most peculiar laboratories in the state. “Paul Moller is this totally crazy inventor in Davis who has been working for the past 40 or 50 years to build a flying car,” Bevirt says, smiling broadly at the memory of his mentor. “It was an amazing experience.” From his sophomore through his senior years, Bevirt worked all hours alongside Moller and a few other engineers trying to figure out a controlled way to lift a vehicle and its driver off the ground. Much of the time was spent on basic questions, such as how to generate enough thrust without massive engines. It never really worked, but Bevirt became infected with a love of “big idea” engineering.
Thirteen years after graduating, Bevirt had the opportunity to embark on his own big idea, backed with his own funds. The tech devotee had invested his meager savings in Apple, Intel, and other booming names during the 1990s while in graduate school at Stanford and sold his shares in 1999, just before the tech bubble burst. He used nearly $500,000 of profit to start Velocity11, a company that designed robotics for the genomics industry. As the company’s CEO and then president, Bevirt not only designed the machines that prepped endless lines of gene specimens for analysis but also headed up customer service and sales for the company. Eight years later he sold Velocity11 to biotech giant Agilent Technologies for more than $100 million.