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Could Airborne Wind Energy Take Off?

A recent study led by the University of Delaware has bolstered the idea that airborne wind energy could be a beneficial addition to the existing energy mix, stating that such generation mechanisms tethered to the ground “have the potential to generate huge amounts of electricity.”

Specifically, there are very fast winds located within jet streams at a certain altitude which would be ideal for airborne wind turbines, able to produce several terawatts of electric power annually.

“These areas, which we call ‘wind speed maxima,’ form much more often and in more regions than we thought,” said study lead author Cristina Archer, associate professor in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. “That was a surprise.”


Makani airborne wind energy prototype
Image Credit: Makani

Such a technology might seem and look a little silly — really nothing more than a kite crossed with a remote controlled toy-plane — but according to the University of Delaware there are over 20 companies currently developing a variety of different airborne wind energy generating technologies.

“There are prototypes, but no one has a commercially viable product ready for market yet,” said Damon Vander Lind of the Google-backed Makani Power. “This means that widespread deployment in farms is still a few years out.”

Christina Archer is one of several being interviewed in a new documentary on airborne wind energy, where a better idea of just how such a new technology could be beneficially integrated into current-day electricity grids.

The study, published in the April issue of the journal Renewable Energy, identified numerous locations for optimal deployment of airborne wind turbines globally where these jet-like winds occur relatively frequently and at an altitude efficiently reachable. Backing the analysis is data spanning 21 years provided by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which helped identify such locations — including three notable examples; the US Great Plains, the oceanic regions near the descending branches of the Hadley cells, and the Somali jet offshore of the horn of Africa.


Makani airborne wind energy prototype
Image Credit: Makani

While not a new technology, airborne wind technology is always going to face a relative uphill battle, given its seeming-novelty and greater level of technical implementation.

Mike Barnard of CleanTechnica detailed the lengthy history and variety of the technology in a post published earlier this year, reaching a simple yet unsurprising conclusion — airborne wind technology is “all platypuses instead of cheetahs”, or in other words, there is no level of harmonious design and “all conceptual and prototyped solutions so far appear to multiply complexities and risks.”

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