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Is the future of wind energy as high as a kite?

Posted by Jason Ramsdale on 4 October 2016 at 12:05 pm

Wind energy is often criticised for being unreliable. However, there is almost always wind blowing in the UK - it's just a little higher up than we currently reach. High above the friction with the ground, high altitude winds are stronger and much more stable than those close to ground level, though we can't reach them by just building bigger wind turbines. The amount and cost of materials required to build turbines big enough to tap into the high altitude winds would just be too high. However several companies believe the answer is kites.

The outer 1/3 of a turbine blade produces around 60% of the power.[1] Innovators believe attaching the blade directly to a tether could allow the blade to fly much larger circles at high speeds, generating more power at a much lower material cost than traditional turbines. There are multiple versions in kite design and flight paths. Designs by Makani, backed by Google, even include propellers which allow the kite to hover during wind drops or return to the ground in a slow, controlled manner. Flight speeds can be in excess of 100 mph in a 20 mph wind. Some designs use these high speeds to drive turbines fixed to the kite, and others have a flight path that causes the tethers to be spooled in and out driving a turbine.

A simulation showing on wind kite farm design:

While there is a prospect for commercial farms to be set up daisy-chaining multiple kite systems together, we find the off-grid application of these systems particularly intriguing. These systems have the potential to be mobile and set up on demand, making them a serious green competitor for diesel generators. With multiple companies testing prototypes that are already generating tens of kW and claims for the potential of MWs of power, it seems these could become available in the near future.

A TED-Ed talk by Saul Griffith from Makani Power:


[1] Kite Wind Energy Power TED Talk by Reinhart Paelinck

Image: Benjamin Griffiths

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