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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Flying Turbines To Power The Future - Wind Power Doesn't Suck After All..

Wind power has always been the wanna-be energy alternative, but quite frankly it has always sucked too much to be convincing of it's potential. Sure, wind is renewable, but it's also extremely unreliable...
Wind, just like the ordinary woman, will not blow where and when you want it.. 

There are geographical locations with somewhat consistent air currents, but those are not distributed even close to evenly over the world. On the opposite, quite often the locations are hard to reach, which makes installation and maintenance of wind turbines a very messy business.

These and more factors such as collection and distribution efficiency, and cable maintenance costs nearly crumble the return of wind energy versus the investment into it.

As technology evolves, science is on the brink of turning the wind power model into a viable method of satisfying the world's energy needs.

For starters, wind is unpredictable and unreliable on a ground and low-altitude levels.. There are mountains and terrains that interact with the currents and slow them down or even change their directions. With increasing the altitude that problem dissipates and winds are more consistent and way faster.

Image from: Kitves

On the chart above you can see the relationship between altitude and wind velocity. With higher velocity we can produce more energy from a single turbine. And, consistent speeds and directions of the currents allow us to place turbines literally everywhere in the world.

But how exactly powerful are these winds? Well, 20, 000 to 50, 000 feet above the ground (based on your location) is located the so called "jet stream". The jet stream is a layer of the atmosphere where swirling masses of air rage with speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour. 

For comparison, a Category 1 hurricane (the least powerful on the scale) has winds with minimum speed of 74 mph. Imagine a constant hurricane blowing at  your wind turbine 24/7.. 
It's calculated that the jet stream has enough potential to cover the world's entire energy demand 100 times. 

So, we have power, but as usual the question is how to get it. Unfortunately, the jet stream is off limits for our current technology, but an American wind power start-up is taking the first step to getting there. 

Altaeros Energies, an MIT startup will soon test their BAT - Buoyant Airborne Turbine. It's is a giant helium-elevated turbine and will soon be released to around a thousand feet above the city of Fairbanks, Alaska. 

The BAT will stay in the air for 18 months and produce and supply energy to a community of over a dozen families living off the grid. 

It's construction is fairly easy to understand - the bulk of the device is a giant helium-filled balloon that will keep it buoyant. The fins are added for stability against stronger winds. 

In the middle of the donut shape is a standard three-bladed turbine that will generate the electricity. The energy will be distributed by cables connected to the turbine, which also act as anchors, holding it in place.  

The wind-turbine is capable of autonomous action - it can both orient itself for the best efficiency in energy production and dock on it's own, if there is an incoming storm. 

As it stands, the BAT generates 2-3 times more electricity than a standard wind tower. 

Current price of the BAT energy stands at 18 cents per kilowatt-hour, whereas most American regions pay about 13-14 cents. It's too early to tell, but Altaeros hope the data they collect from the 18 month test will be able to tell them how to lower price and provide a commercial competitor for American energy. 

For now the technology is highly experimental and the costs far outmatch the returns, but the Alaska Energy Authority has granted a 1.3 million dollars to Altaeros Energies to test their design for the 18 month period. 

In the future these balloons can provide renewable energy to remote regions of the world, power expeditions in places where normal infrastructure doesn't exist - south, north pole; marine and submarine environment; etcetera.. They can also assist in disaster stricken zones, where people stay without power, until they've rebuild what the storms have destroyed. 

They can and probably will also assist war zones and military bases, though I'd like to think not every good invention will be turned into weaponry... 

The applications are endless, a flying station of this size can also be equipped with various already existing technologies. 

It can be used to:
  • transmit cell phone and internet signals
  • sample atmospheric data like wind speed and air constitution
  • create forecasts and monitor atmospheric events
  • create photographs and videos of ongoing events

There are a lot more applications I can't think of right now, but in general we can pack a whole lot of tech into a single floating station like this... 

Other tech companies like the newly acquired by Google Makani  Power are also on their way to reveal prototypes that  tap into high-altitude wind power. For now, however, their designs stay in the labs. 

Looking years ahead, I can easily picture flying wind-farms above major metropolises covering all the cities needs of power and energy. 

If at some point Tesla's idea of wireless electricity comes to life, flying BAT's can provide the world's power without the need of power infrastructures at all, or at least a very minimised and localised ones. 

More on green technology and sustainability by Audrey Wright: 

3 Energy Sources Hiding Under Your Nose