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Published on November 16th, 2011 | by Silvio Marcacci


Airborne Wind Turbine Could Revolutionize Wind Power

November 16th, 2011 by  

Could this airborne wind turbine generate steady, cheap wind energy?

Flying a kite has often been considered child’s play, but a group of inventors think the concept could be used to make wind energy cheaper and more reliable than ever before, potentially revolutionizing wind power forever.

energyNOW! correspondent Josh Zepps met the innovators working to turn the idea of flying a kite into an airborne wind turbine that’s lighter and more powerful than traditional wind turbines. The full video is available below:

The concept

If you’ve ever flown a kite, you’re familiar with the strength and consistency of wind hundreds of feet off the ground, higher up than most land-based wind turbines. 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?

Enter the Makani Airborne Wind Turbine, an innovative design that combines the concept of kite surfing with wind turbines. Its goal is to achieve the same motion of a turbine without the structure itself. “The difference between a wind turbine and what we’re doing is we have a wing that is free-flying and tethered to the ground,” said Corwin Hardham, Makani CEO. “You have this kite flying the same pattern as wind turbine blade, but up higher in the sky.”

The technology

The secret to the air turbine design lies in using a fraction of the material necessary for a standard wind turbine. A conventional 1-megawatt wind turbine can weigh more than 100 tons, but Makani’s airborne turbine only uses a carbon-fiber wing and lightweight rotors of their own creation. 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. “We expect the cost to be around 3 cents a kilowatt-hour,” said Hardham. “That’s getting lower than a lot of coal-fired generation at the moment.”

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 the tether connecting them to the ground. The wing’s rotors function as both propeller and generator: when the wing launches, it uses backup or stored power to reach its cruising altitude. At about 1,000 feet high, they switch to creating resistance against the high-altitude winds and generate electricity the same way an electric vehicle generates power from its brakes.

But what about when the wind doesn’t blow? 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 says the system will generate power twice as consistently as the best wind farms operating today. “The wind is about twice as powerful at that altitude,” says Hardham.

Future outlook

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.

But, like most energy start-ups, the airborne wind turbine will ultimately succeed or fail based on how much power it can generate. That’s why Makani 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.

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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

  • Pingback: Google Buys Makani Wind Power (Kite Power Company) | CleanTechnica()

  • m c

    Problem is Americans never read history, we have become a nation of academics and fantisy writers where where history or solid engineering means nothing to the DOE, if it sounds good throw money at it, follow the yellow brick road to Alice in wonderland and the mad hatter to waste all our time and tax payers money. Hears a little history you flunkies may have missed.
    1) ben franklin in the 1600 knew if you attached metal to a kite it attracts lightning strikes 2) in WW2 england had barrarge baloons attached by cable to bring down german bombers that would be distroyed on contact with the cable. ( I can see a lot of planes falling from the skys with this lunatic idea)

  • Pingback: Explaining ARPA-E & “Inventing the Future” - CleanTechnica()

  • Please read this discussion group for level-headed analysis of Makani: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/AirborneWindEnergy/messages

    • Anonymous

      I looked at a couple of pages. Lot of noise and not much signal.

      If you’ve been following the conversation perhaps you could put together a summary. I don’t think most people are going to wade through all that.

      • Makani’s design is likely to fail and because it is such a highly publicized case (funded by Google), its failure might scare investors. There is a lot of innovation going on in the AWE scene and it would be cool to see funds distributed a bit more evenly.

        • Anonymous

          I don’t find your logic convincing. If it fails, it fails. Lots of new technology stumbles while taking its baby steps. Google picked a winner with Tesla but their NanoSolar investment hasn’t been a big win.

          If someone else comes up with a better idea they’ll get funding. Google is not the only group with money for startups.

          • AWE hasn’t really proven itself yet, compared to electric vehicles and solar power. There was a surge of innovation in the 1970s because of the oil crises, but then it dropped off the map, much more so than other renewables. I’m not asking you to trust my reasoning or anything like that.. my first post was about encouraging people to educate themselves even just a little bit about all the technological challenges and different approaches to AWE. Next, I provided a very short summary of some opinions on the AWE discussion forum. I’m not a maker or engineer myself, just like to follow what’s cooking in the field of renewables.

  • Matthew Peffly

    There are a bunch of videos of similar approaches on the web. My fav keep the generator on the ground so is even lighter. Keep hoping someone moves past the early prototype stage.

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