Airborne Wind Turbine Could Revolutionize Wind Power

Flying a kite – often considered child’s play, but the concept could make wind energy cheaper and more reliable than ever before. Correspondent Josh Zepps met the innovators turning the idea of flying a kite into an airborne wind turbine that’s lighter and more powerful than traditional wind turbines.

If you’ve ever flown a kite, you know the strength and consistency of wind hundreds of feet off the ground. What if that same concept could be applied to harness wind power – could it help solve the intermittency, siting, and cost problems that have put a damper on wind energy?

image via energyNow!

Enter the Makani Airborne Wind Turbine, a design combining kite surfing with wind turbines. Its goal is to achieve the same motion of a turbine, but without the structure itself. A conventional 1-megawatt wind turbine can weigh more than 100 tons, but Makani’s turbine only uses a carbon-fiber wing and lightweight rotors.

The company says its 1-megawatt airborne turbine system will weigh a tenth as much and have an installed price half a normal turbine, but with the same rated power and twice as consistently as the best wind farms operating today.

Imagine a fleet of 26-feet wide, motorized fixed-wing gliders tracing circles in the air at 150 miles per hour, sending a constant stream of electricity to the grid via a tether to the ground. The wing’s rotors function as both propeller and generator: when it launches, they use backup or stored power to reach cruising altitude. At 1,000 feet, they create resistance against the high-altitude winds and generate electricity the same way an electric vehicle generates power from its brakes.

The wings can stay aloft using steady breezes or their own power, but once the wind speed drops below nine miles an hour, they become net consumers of electricity, and would be landed if periods of low wind speed are forecast.

Makani’s future seems bright. Their airborne turbine system won this year’s Breakthrough Award in energy from Popular Mechanics, received a $3 million dollar grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, and $20 million in venture capital funding from Google. The company is developing a bigger turbine system to fly at 1,600 feet and produce enough electricity to power 600 homes. It plans to launch a prototype of the new design by 2013 and enter commercial production by 2015.

The full video is available below:

Editor’s Note: This news story comes to us as a cross post courtesy of energyNow! Author credit for the story goes to Josh Zepps.

  • Curt

    Iu00a0 work in the wind industry and would offer these comments:u00a0 Before this concept can be both financed and insured, the design will need to be certified by a recognized international wind turbine certification agency such as Germanischer Lloyd, Det Norske Veritas, TUV Nord, or DEWI.u00a0 Without this certification, no banker would offer project financing,u00a0and nou00a0insurance underwriter would offer economical coverage.u00a0 Also, wind turbines actually produce electricity about 35% to 40% of the time (called capacity factor).u00a0 The concept of landing and relauching these systems as the wind fluctuates will give insurance underwriters nightmares and could result in coverage exclusions bankers would be unprepared to tolerate.u00a0 Finally, flying these systems at 1,600 feet AGL (above ground level) would put them in the Federal Aviation Agency’s controlled airspace so they would need to approve operation of these turbines.u00a0 The FAA also requires “obstruction lighting” on devices penetrating their airspace and the concept of dozens of flashing strobe lights flying circles around the night sky is bound to generate strong objection from people living and working near these projects.u00a0 Since I make my living in the wind industry, I’m all for innovative concepts which move the technolgy forward.u00a0 I’m just not sure that the designers of these systems will be able to overcome the significant obstacles they’ll need to overcome to commercially deploy these systems.u00a0 Curt Maloy, Palm Desert, CA.

    • Joe Faust

      Curt, please present the same in group AirborneWindEnergy u00a0 u00a0 u00a0 u00a0 TIA.u00a0nOver 800 statkeholders are with some gathering through EnergyKiteSystemsnwhere you are welcome to survey the many alternative methods. u00a0There is an exciting opportunity for spectacular engineering solutions.u00a0

  • Windoption

    I like its design and I think the airborne wind turbine could be very popular in next years. I have also posted something about it on my blog: http://windoption.com/2012/02/airborne-wind-turbines/