Airborne Wind Industry Takes Off

With the U.S. Department of Energy predicting that wind will provide up to 20 percent of the country’s energy by 2030, entrepreneurs and businesses are jumping into the wind energy market.  The market is looking up, both figuratively and literally.  Scientists note that turbines high in the sky could generate 20 times more energy than current models.

California State University, Chico, Assistant Professor of environmental sciences, Cristina Archer, said, “The jet streams are like a river of free, clean and concentrated energy flowing above us, waiting to be tapped into.”  Archer says startups are “popping up left and right.”  Turbines that look like blimps, kites and planes may soon join traditional turbines in the wind energy market.

Engineers at Makani Power constructed an airborne wind turbine wing that flies like a kite 800 feet in the sky.  The wing captures wind energy and an electrically conductive tether transmits the energy to the ground.  Department of Energy director Arun Majumdar said, “This could potentially be the wind turbine of tomorrow – we don’t know.  But it seems promising.”

Makini’s project is funded by a $3 million grant from the Department of Energy and a $20 million investment by Google.  Google is a major sponsor of alternative energy research, investing over $85 million in a variety of projects including a 350-mile offshore wind project.

Other companies utilize the tethering technology to transmit energy from flying devices.  California-based Magenn Power is constructing blimps with energy-catching fabric sails.  Joby Energy, a 35-employee venture in Santa Cruz, created autonomous gliders carrying rotor turbines tethered to the ground, and Italian energy company KiteGen activates alternators to produce electricity by attaching a pulley system to a single kite sailing 2,624 feet above the ground.

Environmental concerns and high-energy prices inspired once secretive inventors to join forces and promote the technology.  Archer was instrumental in forming the Airborne Wind Energy Consortium, a trade group that meets at annual conferences to share problems and new ideas. Investors, scientists and entrepreneurs attended the second annual conference at Stanford University in September.

Once skeptical, scientists are beginning to see vast potential in airborne wind turbines.  Airborne devices can generate wind power in areas where surface wind is scarce due to dips and valleys. Because the structures are lighter in weight, installation may prove easier and less expensive. Consistent, strong winds at higher altitudes may also allow for increased energy generation.

Makani estimates a 40 percent cost savings over traditional turbines.  The company will use its grant money to construct a 20-kilowatt prototype and develop computer algorithms to let the device fly autonomously.  CEO Corwin Hardham admits considerable time and money will have to be invested to prove that the idea works.  ”You’re talking about building an entirely new energy technology,” he said.

According to Bob Thresher, research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Lab, airborne technology companies have a long road ahead of them. “It’s technically feasible but there are a lot of challenges to get the costs down,” he said.  Companies must deal with safety, environmental and weather issues, and receive final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Entrepreneurs seem up for the challenge.  As Hardham said, “It’s technology that has the opportunity to make a big difference in how we live our lives.”