It’s a Bird? It’s a Plane? It’s a Wind Turbine!

Photo credit to Altaeros Energy

It’s a Bird? It’s a Plane? It’s a Wind Turbine!

Max Twogood for Zondits, June 20, 2014

[Somerville, MA] Tucked away in the suburbs of Boston is Greentown Labs, a clean-tech incubator and shared work space that has grown from just three companies to nearly fifty promoting sustainable and clean energy solutions. Among these is a start-up called Altaeros Energies, which is pushing the boundaries of conventional wind power. What originated as a college project at M.I.T. for Altaeros founder Ben Glass grew into a start-up business developing high altitude wind turbines. Suspended at heights of 500 to 1,900 feet, their buoyant Altaeros Turbineairborne turbines (BATs) take advantage of stronger, steadier winds that are only accessible at higher altitudes.

The wind power density (W/ft2) climbs exponentially with altitude. At 500 feet there is nearly triple the available wind power of a standard 100-foot wind turbine. However, putting wind power in the sky has its own set of challenges, ironically. Aside from the logistical challenges associated with FFA regulations and permitting, Glass is faced with making a turbine that is light enough to suspend but large enough to produce. Glass considers this to be the biggest design constriction—decreasing weight without sacrificing performance. New lightweight materials, such as carbon composites and laminate fabric, present cost-effective solutions to this weight-performance nexus. The BATs are anchored by both live tethers that transmit 120 V and 240 V dc power from the turbine to the ground station and lighter, non-electrified tethers that are capable of remotely docking the system in inclement weather. Consuming smaller footprints and mitigating land impacts, the BAT systems are also challenging the NIMBY (not in my backyard) skepticism faced by conventional wind farms.

Altaeros is not alone in the airborne wind turbine development, and as a startup their goal is be the first on the market with their smaller 30 kW system. In the short term they are targeting rural and off-grid communities, especially islands that have to import fossil fuels to generate electricity, yielding costly electric rates as high as $0.50/kWh. Compared to this baseline, Altaeros is confident that the BAT can yield paybacks as short as 2 to 4 years. Eventually, they hope to bring a 200kW system to the market, which they believe can be produced for under $1 million, and in the long term Altaeros envisions moving into offshore generation. Their vision is driven by a recent initiative by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to push the cost of wind generation down to $0.13/kWh from $0.225/kWh. Altaeros is very optimistic that the BAT can achieve this, and the sooner they hit the market, the quicker their production costs can start to come down.

From smart grids to renewables to net zero buildings and distributed generation, innovation and emerging technologies dominates the current energy landscape, and Altaeros Energies has come to the table in a major way. Time will tell, but perhaps in the near future, the thought of wind turbines will send our gaze skyward.

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