Clean Power

Published on May 24th, 2013 | by Zachary Shahan


Google Buys Makani Wind Power (Kite Power Company)

May 24th, 2013 by  

It’s been a long time since we covered Makani Power, the company developing kite-like wind turbines. But the company didn’t float away (bad pun intended). In fact, it has just been bought by Google, for development under its Google[x] division.

Image Credit: Makani / Google

Image Credit: Makani / Google

Some quick history: Makani’s creators several years ago came up with the idea of essentially combining kites with wind turbines in order to capture the strong and steady wind energy high up in the sky — too high for conventional wind turbines to capture.

“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,” Silvio wrote back in 2011. “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 Corwin Hardham, Makani CEO. “That’s getting lower than a lot of coal-fired generation at the moment.”

Makani Power has received a number of awards and grants over the years, including a $3 million dollar grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, and $20 million in venture capital funding from Google.

Back in 2011, the aim was to reach commercial production by 2015.

Google’s purchase: Apparently, Google liked what it saw. And a critical development unveiled last week probably didn’t hurt. From the Makani Power website: “This formalizes a long and productive relationship between our two companies, and will provide Makani with the resources to accelerate our work to make wind energy cost competitive with fossil fuels. The timing couldn’t be better, as we completed the first ever autonomous all-modes flight with our Wing 7 prototype last week.”

“They’ve turned a technology that today involves hundreds of tons of steel and precious open space into a problem that can be solved with really intelligent software,” Google X Director Astro Teller said. “We’re looking forward to bringing them into Google.”

What is Google[x]? Well, you won’t find a Google website about it (at least, I didn’t). But it is reportedly, “a secret facility run by Google thought to be located somewhere in the Bay Area of Northern California,” according to Wikipedia. “Work at the lab is overseen by Sergey Brin, one of Google’s co-founders.” About 100 potentially groundbreaking projects are reportedly in some process of development there. Google’s driverless car technology (which I happened to get some video of last year, as well as pics, while on a short trip to the Bay Area) and Project Glass are probably the two most well known projects in Google[x].

We’ll see where Makani’s (er, Google’s) wind turbine kites goes next. Hopefully they do hit those 2015 commercialization and 3 cents per kilowatt-hour targets.

For now, here are a few videos highlighting the innovative, kite-like wind turbines:

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Close assessment of Google’s Makani generation shows that they have serious challenges and shortfalls. They will require dedicated remote land as safety requires preclude being near public roads or electrical lines, and the workers’ safety and insurance organizations will be unsupportive of anyone being in such a wind farm. Similarly, significant portions of the wind farm will likely have to be shut down for maintenance of individual units. They probably won’t work at all in winter conditions. And most tellingly, a Makani farm just won’t outperform much simpler and more robust HAWTs of equivalent scale in the same conditions. Conventional wind turbines can be interspersed among working farms, taking up 1% of the land and adding significant revenue to productive agricultural concerns; Makani’s can’t. It’s unlikely that onshore Makani farms of any scale or number will be built; offshore is only slightly more likely.

    • stgore

      Mike, you attack every single wind technology outside of gargantuan mega-watt scale turbines. It’s obvious you are vying to take up the torch for Gipe when he kicks the bucket. At least he was honest about what he was doing.

      I have read several of your attacks against Makani (as well as every other wind turbine under the sun) and come to the solid conclusion that you are shilling for the big wind utility sector.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Perhaps Mike is looking at performance data. Big is beautiful when it comes to wind. Small is inefficient.

        And there are tons of weird little turbines that people pimp but can’t prove worth the money.

        • stgore

          Maybe Google is doing something that’s over both of your heads.

          Hint: See Facebook’s recent interest in drones.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Bring data.

            We’ll talk.

          • stgore

            “Bring data”

            Now you’re getting it.

  • Russell

    Wow! There is also obvious room for improvement upon the prototype as people have pointed out. Software is only getting better, so are materials. That is a major reason why solar/wind have an advantage going forward. If the materials to make the kite get cheaper, wind gets cheaper almost overnight. If they get stronger, then you can go bigger and higher.

  • agelbert

    Interesting. It seems like a large tehered blimp could field several kites at the same time. Just thinking out loud.

    • disqus_ooeOMumBe6

      What I really like about this idea is the much reduced visual impact of the turbine compared to current towers (No Bob, I’m not going to get in that argument again!) This will help put the turbines in windy places where a tower would spoil the view.

      • Bob_Wallace

        I like the idea, too. It has some potential to provide cheaper electricity than the rigs we’re using now, but it does seen that it might be a lot more labor intensive. And there are some airplane issues.

        They are expecting the price to fall to 3 cents/kWh. Expectations are that tower-turbine prices will drop to 3 cents/kWh. In fact, some tower-turbine rigs are now producing at 4 cents/kWh (no subsidies included).

        • disqus_ooeOMumBe6

          I’m curious as to where you see it as more labour intensive. As I understand it, they use autonemous software to run the system every day with no human intervention. Initial construction is a lot simpler as well.

          I agree there could be airplane issues, but they’d just use sites which aren’t under flight paths.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’m guessing ‘wear and tear’ is going to be a larger issue than with standard turbines. Because they have to fly it won’t be as easy to “overbuild” for longer performance.

            And in the event of a big storm these guys are going to have to be pulled down and secured. Wind turbines automatically turn their blades to face the wind, edge on, when wind speeds get too high.

          • disqus_ooeOMumBe6

            Just had a look at their FAQ page

            They say…

            The Makani AWT has been shown in simulation to operate in hurricane conditions: winds in excess of 50 m/s (111.8 mph) with gusts reaching 80 m/s (179.0 mph).
            During particularly extreme weather the AWT can land until conditions normalize.

            so it looks as if it’s designed to be pretty tough.

            Let’s hope it performs in real life as well as the simulations.

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