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RIP Google Makani: Perhaps The Entire Airborne Wind Energy Space Will Finally Disappear

With luck, the airborne wind energy space will sink back into academic research efforts involving kitesurfing kites at University of Delft. It’s useful to continue to play with things in academia, and it’s a domain with a lot of engineering complexity that’s a good proving ground for engineers who can go on to do useful things as a result.

Airborne wind energy is a tiny niche. There are a bunch of individuals, researchers, and the occasional company that have managed to get funding from the credulous to try to make a commercial concern of generating electricity with kites. By far the best funded, longest lasting, and highest hope of these was Makani, created by a kitesurfer, bought by Google and brought into its X group of moonshot companies, and then rolled into Alphabet when the parent company turned into an umbrella.

Alphabet Makani 30 kW airborne wind generator

Alphabet Makani 30 kW airborne wind generator image courtesy of PPPL.gov

I have a weird notoriety in the tiny niche. I published a lot on it a few years ago, hoping that the technology I’d been hearing about since I was a kid actually had something going for it. It was a disappointing dive into the rabbit hole, interesting but notable mostly for how participants in the space didn’t seem to have the ability to build Level 0 requirements, understand anything about regulatory requirements for energy, understand anything about actual wind energy, understand anything about end-to-end systems thinking, or generally have their feet on the ground at all. My various articles received a lot of attention in the very tiny niche.

I’m in the brief documentary that someone made and I occasionally receive signed PhD theses from Delft University in Europe, where the unanswered questions I pointed out are still being explored in research, it seems. I had a NASA aerospace engineer who was trying to pivot from designing experimental airframes which never got built to designing airborne wind generation systems which never got built write me nasty-grams about my lack of understanding. One principal in a company sought me out at a wind energy conference to ask me why I was so publicly critical of the space, i.e., why I bothered at all if I was going to be mean. The only press they ever received was from credulous buzztech sites that just wanted something flashy to grab eyeballs, so they weren’t used to anyone actually being engaged enough intellectually to point out the lack of clothes that they were wearing. It was all very droll and nerdy, and I enjoyed it, as disappointing as the space’s viability turned out to be.

Every once in a while, someone would send me an update on Makani, one of the many firms I’d assessed and written about, usually with the implicit or explicit message that I was wrong and that everyone was going to know it sooner or later. Makani managed to run a test flight of its 600 kW airborne wind generator in Hawaii in late 2018. That garnered a few emails and tweets from the afficionados of the space, despite the 600 kW still being tiny compared to modern wind turbines, and having no likelihood of achieving the capacity factors of them either. As with the entire space, they realized fairly early that the obvious requirement for absurdly large setbacks on land — imagine a kilometer+, very strong cable, often electrified, draped across roads, power lines, and people’s homes — made only offshore generation even remotely viable. Makani even managed to run a demonstration of that in mid-2019.

As I pointed out long ago, anyone looking at that device mounted in the North Seas who has even the faintest idea of the weather that they get up there would be expecting it to have the longevity of a soap bubble. Makani was still being touted as the leader in the space for the 2019 Airborne Wind Energy Conference, held in Scotland in August. And now, it’s dead. Alphabet pulled the plug a couple of days ago. This isn’t really surprising. The Google founders, Brin and Page, took a big step back from the company late last year, and a new CEO, Sundar Pichai, who doesn’t have the same history with the often deeply weird and fetishistic investment of the X group, took over. Pichai was actually expected to bring some fiscal sensibility to the parent company, not that they really needed it, but stakeholders want increasing returns. And so, the dozens of engineers and staff working on Makani have to find new gigs. Pichai has asserted that they’ll try to find them work in other parts of Google and Alphabet, but it’s hard to see where. These are people who have spent a decade of their lives going deep on autonomous kites that fly in circles.

There just isn’t a lot of call for that in Google’s core business, something Pichai ran for a long time, having led Chrome and Google Drive innovation efforts before ascending the ranks further. Alphabet has spun off Waymo, and the autonomous features of that technology don’t overlap much with the driving space. I have some sympathy for the people engaged in Makani. Having dealt with the people in the space, I know that their hearts were in the right place. They were working to bring more renewable, low-carbon energy to the world. That it didn’t pass the engineering or systems thinking sniff tests just means that they were engaged in something which was a waste of their talents. And it was a good gig. Makani was a San Francisco Bay area company for a long time, then decamped to Hawaii. Big salaries, nice weather, good kitesurfing opportunities. It was an excellent lifestyle gig and the work was undoubtedly interesting even if it was never going to turn into anything. If someone had offered me a gig in SF then Hawaii doing cool engineering with a veneer of being climate friendly and getting to kitesurf, I would have been hard pressed to decline. No one did, so my dubious virtue remains untested.

With luck, the airborne wind energy space will sink back into academic research efforts involving kitesurfing kites at University of Delft. It’s useful to continue to play with things in academia, and it’s a domain with a lot of engineering complexity that’s a good proving ground for engineers who can go on to do useful things as a result. But commercially it’s never going to be viable. And hopefully the gizmo-oriented press will stop paying any attention to the space, but instead cover the massive growth and improvements in actually viable wind energy.

 
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Written By

is Board Observer and Strategist for Agora Energy Technologies a CO2-based redox flow startup, a member of the Advisory Board of ELECTRON Aviation an electric aviation startup, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.

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