A new take on wind energy is starting to emerge and it could fill the sails of wind power backers. Traditional wind energy relies on turbines to create power from wind, but a new group of companies is increasingly looking at variations on an old children’s toy to generate power; the kite. Proponents of the new technology are looking at using batteries of kites flying offshore to generate power.
Kites present a number of important advantages over turbines. First of all, despite the general interest from environmentalists in alternative energy sources, many environmental groups also have a NIMBY attitude and oppose specific green energy projects from solar arrays to win turbines in their specific areas. Thus wind power companies often face protests about installing new turbines with complaints ranging from despoiling scenic views to hurting birds. Kites could still face some protests of course, but since they would generally be tethered far offshore, those protests are likely to be correspondingly less vociferous.
Even more importantly though, kite-based wind power represents an opportunity to save money, and decrease power costs by rethinking the wind energy supply chain. Traditional wind turbines have to be installed offshore using expensive boats and massive amounts of steel and concrete to secure the tower. Kite wind power in contrast is likely to be much less costly to install.
While methods differ between the various firms involved in the nascent technology the basic idea behind kite wind power is that the kites fly offshore in offsetting positions attached to a mooring. The premise is that “The cost target for the … technology will allow onshore and offshore kite arrays to be developed without Government subsidies and offers a technology that can be deployed in locations where conventional wind can’t,” according to Kite Power Solutions (KPS), one of the firms in the area.
KPS is not the only firm working on this idea though which speaks to the fact that the concept may actually be economically viable. Competitors in the space include, Altaeros Energies, Ampyx Power, and SkySails. Interestingly, many of the companies in this space are European firms (Altaeros is an exception – the small start-up is based in Massachusetts), which raises questions about whether America is giving up a lead in innovation in next generation wind powered technologies. With the UK Department of Energy and other national bodies backing KPS and its peers, it’s possible the U.S. may not be investing enough in what could become a major source of wind power in the next decade. Google is backing a company called Makani that is also working in the space, but historically disruptive breakthroughs in technology often come from upstarts rather than established firms that don’t have the same level of pressing need to see a new technology succeed.
Kite wind power technologies make a lot of sense, but the biggest challenge for them versus conventional turbines will be proving that the kites are durable enough to be an effective infrastructure investment. Turbines with their steel and concrete substructures present an aura of permanence that is consistent with an industry set up to make investments that pay off over decades. In contrast, kites are likely to last a much shorter period of time.
This doesn’t mean that kites cannot be cost effective even if they have to be replaced every year or so. But it does mean that the hurdle to establish the technology as economically viable is greater. Kites need to be cheap enough that even if the sails and other components have to be replaced frequently the system is still profitable. This means not only material, but the labor as well to replace or repair an offshore system needs to be taken into account. That issue is not a death knell for the technology by any means, but from a financial standpoint it does present a barrier to widespread acceptance.
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