Towerless Buoyant Air Turbine May Expand Wind Energy's Reach

We cover wind turbine news here on a regular basis, but now this excellent renewable technology, currently second only to solar, may be capable of going towerless. Altaeros Energies has developed a promising buoyant air turbine to harness high-altitude winds and deploy low-cost power from them. A group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) formed Altaeros four years ago. The company views its invention as “the next generation of wind power.”

"The BAT" (Altaeros)Altaeros calls its buoyant air turbine product “The BAT.” The moored silver aircraft is a pilotless cylindrical helium-filled blimp 35 feet in diameter that encases a three-bladed turbine. Like a 20th-century military reconnaissance balloon, the BAT hovers in consistent winds 1,000-2,000 feet aboveground. Its strong tethers transmit wind energy from the turbine to a portable ground station that can be linked to a power grid, local microgrid, or owner equipment. Safety lights and locator beacons serve to warn passing aircraft, although the BAT flies below most federal flight patterns.

The BAT leverages proven aerospace technology to lift and sustain a wind turbine high aboveground, well beyond the reach of even the most advanced windmill towers. By harnessing five times stronger winds and eliminating the complex logistics of importing traditional renewables to remote areas, the Altaeros BAT drastically reduces the cost of energy generation.

The buoyant aerial turbine packs into two small shipping containers. It requires no heavy machinery to set up and can be operable in about a day. Setup, remote monitoring, and periodic on-site inspections are the BAT’s only human inputs required. A computer-controlled automated system on the ground can optimize the BAT’s height to accommodate changing winds. Also, the BAT can reel itself down to the ground in severe weather. The Altaeros invention has a better environmental profile than traditional ground turbines because winged creatures don’t usually fly as high as the aeroturbines, although some critics have expressed concerns about the airborne device’s’s rapidly whipping, nearly invisible tethers.

The buoyant air turbine’s generator can power up to 18 homes. It can enable isolated communities to have electric light and heat at dramatically lower cost than a standard generator used with fossil fuels. Altaeros will partner with the Golden Valley Electric Association in landlocked Fairbanks, Alaska, next year on an 18-month test run.

“In Alaska, we have a very small electrical grid,” Golden Valley systems manager Paul Morgan told Thom Patterson of CNN. “When people live away from that, they generate their own power in all these villages, and that’s pretty expensive.” Electric power in The Last Frontier can cost ten times the U.S. average, according to The New York Times).

On the whole, an estimated 1 billion people worldwide–well over 10% of the global population–live in rural areas where electric power is not available. An international economic commission last December pointed out the implications of being powerless:

“There is a strong nexus between energy and other important development factors such as education, health, gender, environment, economic growth, food security, and water. Sustainable access to modern energy services is a critical input and catalyst for improving the productive capacities and welfare of rural isolated communities, leading to poverty eradication and sustainable development.”

The UN Secretary-General has made universal access to modern energy services, or β€œSustainable Energy for All,” one of the organization’s three main objectives for 2030.

"The BAT" in a remote location (Altaeros)Importantly, the BAT will also prove useful to industry, government, and institutional groups conducting research and operations in areas out of reach of existing grids; and it may have some applications for telecommunications.

Other consortia working on designs for aerial wind power generators include Google-owned Makani Power in California, whose lightweight carbon fiber invention looks like a solar airplane, Canadian LTA Windpower, whose PowerShip is a blimp-with-wings construction that runs on hydrogen, and Berlin-based EnerKite, which has designed a huge wind-capturing mono-wing and expects to start sales in 2016.

Mike Barnard, Wind Senior Fellow at the Energy and Policy Institute, provided an excellent in-depth review for CleanTechnica in March of airborne wind energy devices. His technically astute article finds the Altaeros candidate tied for second place in terms of overall viability. However, Barnard questions the viability of airborne wind generation systems in general as opposed to ground-based solutions (using the metaphor of the platypus versus the cheetah) and cites the lack of working projects. Altaeros may provide the first of these. Barnard does not address the economics of the alternatives, the viability of this technology in isolated or brownfield situations, or its undeniable attractiveness in remote and poverty-stricken areas unserved by the grid.

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