Reaching High In The Sky For Wind Power

Here’s the thing about wind: he higher you go, the more of it there is. At a couple thousand feet altitude, wind speeds are twice, even three times what they are on the ground. And when it comes to producing power from the wind, that’s only the beginning of the story. As aerospace engineer Mark Moore said in a NASA press release, “The power goes up with the cube of that wind velocity, so it’s eight to 27 times the power production just by getting 2,000 feet up.” Plus, Moore added, the wind velocity is more consistent aloft.

It sounds fanciful – pie in the sky, you might say – but Moore is studying possible ways to take advantage of this superior, higher-up wind to produce power. He won a $100,000 grant to conduct the first federally funded research into advanced wind-borne energy concepts. Among the ideas he’s toying with: a funnel-shaped blimp with a turbine at its back, a balloon with rotating vanes, a truss-braced wing, a parachute … what the heck, even a kite.

Wind-borne energy, high-altitude wind power, Joby Energy

image via Joby Energy

Moore is looking at different altitudes for harvesting wind – 2,000 feet, 10,000 feet and 30,000 feet, where the jet stream rockets along at 150 miles per hour. There, he says, “Instead of 500 watts per meter (for ground-based wind turbines), you’re talking about 20,000, 40,000 watts per square meter.”

The actual technology of taking advantage of this potential source of energy, and where to do it, is one of two major questions with the wind-borne energy concept, Moore said. The other question is how it might compete for airspace with other users – airplanes, mainly. Moore is hopeful that his research will help guide private companies exploring high-altitude wind, like Joby Energy.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.