A technology that might provide clean electricity that is cheaper and more reliable than coal is ready for testing. Some of the world’s leading scientists think it will work. So why aren’t we spending a few million (not billion but million) dollars to find out?
The basic idea: wind blows harder and more constantly at high altitudes where aircraft fly than over the tops of towers we install wind turbines on today. Attach wind turbines to tethered helicopters and we can generate many times the energy of conventional turbines. We can use the tethers both to send electricity to the helicopter to keep it in the air, and to draw electricity back down to the ground from the flying generators. The electricity needed to run the helicopters is trivial compared to what we get back.
Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? But a proof-of-concept toy version demonstrated net energy at less than 500 feet back in 1986, when Professor Bryan Roberts tested his first “GyroMill”. With today’s aerospace technology and ability to create ultra-strong electrically conductive fiber, Sky WindPower Corporation believes their modern Flying Energy Generators (FEGs) based on the same principles are ready to produce electricity at 15,000 to 33,000 feet. They have designed a 250 KW proof-of-feasibility prototype they are ready to test if they can get the funding. Scientists and engineers inside and outside of Sky WindPower have jointly produced a peer reviewed paper, Harnessing High Altitude Wind Power, that makes a convincing case for their system.
Sky WindPower, and outside reviewers claim cost per MW of peak capacity is lower than conventional systems, and that FEGS operate at double or triple the capacity of conventional wind power. If true this would result in per kWh costs lower than generation costs for coal electricity.
There are other advantages as well. At 15,000 to 33,000 feet flying generators pose little or no danger to birds and bats and insects. If these systems work, they can operate in locations where conventional wind farms are impractical, meaning they can be placed much closer to transmission than today’s wind farms. Similarly the high capacity utilization (up to 92%) means comparatively small amounts of storage can let FEGs deliver baseload, load following, and perhaps even some peaking power. There are objections, but if you follow the link to Sky WindPower and to the peer reviewed pdf, you will find most of them rebutted.
So what is stopping this from being tested? After all, a number of venture capitalists (including Google) are interested in the concept. It is a chicken/egg problem, caused by the interaction of two problems, neither of which would be fatal alone, but which together are show stoppers. The first problem is: even though we have models and strong evidence on paper these will work, we can’t really know how successful they will be until we try them. Years ago engineers called this the smoke test. “Turn it on and see if it smokes”. By itself this is not a big problem. Venture capitalists do risk funding an initial prototype on occasion, though they much prefer to invest after a prototype is up and running.
But the second problem with FEGs is that at heights of 10,000 to 33,000 feet, you have to ban aviation from wherever you locate generation. In essence FEGs displace air traffic. The U.S. displaces aviation from various locations for all sorts of purposes: defense bases, the war on some drugs, and the war on terra. I’d say that clean inexpensive electricity is a far better reason to exclude aviation from a small area than the motive behind most of our current U.S. no-fly zones.
But consider how those two problems interact. If you were a venture capitalist how willing would you be to risk money on a prototype that not only might not work, but would be very difficult to permit sites for if it did work? Similarly, nobody is going to take on a political battle to set up procedures for licensing FEGS without knowing if they are technically feasible or not. This is a perfect case for a government funding to break the chicken-egg deadlock. Compared to other Federal energy R&D expenditures, the scale is small. Pay for the production of a prototype, plus rental of a rural airport that is in big enough financial trouble to be willing to shut down on successive weekends in return for a generous fee. Cho could probably find the funding inside DOE if he thought it worthwhile, maybe within existing research programs. If anyone reading this has DOE contacts they might want to mention this to them.
At any rate, if I were in the U.S. DOE or in an equivalent agency in any nation within the latitudes where FEGS could work, I would take a serious look at the technology to decide if it was worth spending a few million dollars to test a prototype. At the very least I would allocate some staff time for an initial review. If it passed that review, I would allocate resources to rigorously evaluate it, and if it passed that evaluation then I would strongly consider funding it.
Sky Windpower’s technology is not the only high altitude wind system under development; though I think it is the best. Gary Rondeau wrote an excellent post on the technology and players for the Energy Collective: High Altitude Wind Power – A Review . Anyone looking into this will want to consider them all. But I think anyone investigating will find Sky WindPower’s system is the most mature technology, has the lowest cost per kWh, and has biggest short and long term potential of any high altitude wind energy system.
Sky Wind Power Corporation
Picture of first GyroMill in operation in 1986
Harnessing High Altitude Wind Power by Bryan W. Roberts, Ken Caldeira, M. Elizabeth Cannon et. al.
High Altitude Wind Power – A Review by Gary Rondeau