Massive Flying Wind Turbine Could Offer A New Path To Clean Energy

Soil companies drill ever deeper to meet the world’s thirst for fuel, a new wave of clean energy entrepreneurs are also searching far and wide for sources—but in the opposite direction.

That’s because as you go higher, ground friction diminishes, giving way to increasingly stronger winds; at extreme elevations, ranging between 20,000 and 50,000 feet depending on your location, you enter what’s called the jet stream, a swirling mass of air with winds upward of 100 miles per hour. As wind speeds double, the potential supply of energy grows eight-fold, so these air currents along the outer reaches of the earth’s atmosphere can be thought of as a kind of vast treasure trove of renewable power.  In fact, an analysis published in the journal Energies concluded that “the total wind energy in the jet streams is roughly 100 times the global energy demand.

While the notion of tapping into the all-powerful jetstream appears to be out of reach, at least for now, a handful of wind energy start-ups are in a race to develop technologies they hope will someday take advantage of energy found at more modest altitudes. Among them is Altaeros Energies, which recently announced plans to hoist an airborne wind turbine to an unprecedented altitude of 1,000 feet above a remote site in Alaska. Over the course of 18 months, their Buoyant Airborne Turbine (BAT) prototype will supply  power to about a dozen off-the-grid homes.

Though no start date has been set for the project, the pilot is set to begin as soon as the company completes the permit process,  Altaeros Energies co-founder Adam Rein says.

“Places like Alaska are perfect for these systems we developed,”  Rein says. “At these sites, you have cold rugged conditions where the ground is frozen, which makes it difficult to put up regular turbines. If we can demonstrate that [BAT] can work in Alaska, it can work anywhere for more or less the same cost of setting up other turbines.”

While the idea to create air-lifted power generators has been floated for some time now, it’s only recently that firms have assembled prototypes with the goal of producing something commercially viable. These include concepts such as the Laddermill turbine, which consists of a rotating loop of “power kites,” and the Magenn Air Rotor System, a giant helium-filled rotor that its inventors has described as a “spinning Goodyear blimp.” But so far, it’s only the Boston-based Altaeros that has been able to secure funding for a trial run: The pilot project is subsidized in part by the Alaska Energy Authority, which awarded the company a $1.3 million dollar grant to determine the feasibility of expanding technology to other isolated regions.

From a distance, the BAT looks a bit like a massive donut, except for a standard three-blade, horizontal axis turbine in the center. With four protruding fins for stability, the helium-filled outer shell, made from a highly-durable fabric, is attached to three high-tensile strength tethers that hold the turbine securely in place.

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