Wind Turbines Take to the Sky: The Altaeros Buoyant Airborne Turbine

April 22, 2014
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Credit: Altaeros Energies

Altaeros Energies impressed renewable-energy blogosphere in 2012 with its prototype airborne turbines. Now, a commercial-scale test is underway in Alaska.

The scale-model prototype, the Altaeros Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT), produced twice the  power of wind turbines at conventional tower height. As the AWT completed its automated landing, it proved we would soon be able to harness high-altitude winds from almost anywhere in the world, opening up opportunities for inexpensive and fully renewable energy.

Now, just a few years later, Altaeros is poised to set the world record for the highest deployed wind turbine. Their next-generation Buoyant Airborne Turbine (BAT) will rise 300 meters in the air just south of Fairbanks, Alaska, to capture energy for the next 18 months. This will be the first  long-term demonstration of commercially viable high-altitude wind turbines.

Twice the Height of Our Highest Wind Turbines

The Buoyant Airborne Turbine is an inflatable, helium-filled torus with a rotor suspended inside. It is rated to withstand hurricane-force precipitation and winds of over 100 mph. The first test with the scale-model prototype was tested in 45 mph winds (Category 1 hurricanes start at 74 mph). If it needs to, the system can autonomously dock itself in its ground station to wait out severe weather while continuing to generate power.

The wind turbine generates virtually no ground-audible noise and requires minimal maintenance.

Traditional turbines require heavy industrial lifting and huge towers to get them a few hundred feet off the ground, where winds can come in unreliable or slow gusts. At 300 meters, the BAT will be twice as high as the hub height of the largest earthbound wind turbines in the world.

Modular Power Cuts Time and Costs

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Credit: Altaeros Energies

Electricity travels down one of the cables that tether the turbine to the ground. Altaeros says it’s enough to power about a dozen homes.

The ground station is built onto a trailer, and the entire unit can be transported in two shipping containers. This avoids the second-costliest part of traditional wind turbines: installation and transportation. Modular deployment allows for a turbine to be up and generating power within 24 hours and, according to the company, reduces the cost by up to 90 percent.

BAT is intended to generate reliable and cost-effective energy to the multi-billion-dollar remote power and microgrid market. Off-grid sites and remote communities—small islands, military bases, mining sites, and disaster areas— currently rely on expensive and logistically messy diesel generators. In Alaska, where this demonstration is being conducted, power costs run so high for its many remote communities—some areas paying 35 cents to as high as $1 per kilowatt-hour, roughly ten times the national average—that Altaeros’ airborne wind turbines are an extraordinarily  attractive alternative.

This explains why the $1.3 million project is being financed in large part by the Alaska Energy Authority’s Emerging Energy Technology Fund.

Airborne Wind Turbines Taking Off

The potential extends far beyond Alaska, of course. In a 2010 press release, Altaeros took aim at the offshore wind market, where traditional towers present structural and maintenance headaches. By eliminating the need for solid towers and reducing onsite maintenance, the company forecast overall cost reductions of at least 60%.

Although Altaeros is in the news recently, it is hardly the only start-up in the airborne wind energy sector. Makani Power is another prominent name in clean energy, making news when it was acquired by Google X, the search giant’s semi-secret, radical innovation incubator. In a statement, Google X’s “Captain of Moonshots” said this about wind energy:

“They’ve turned a technology that today involves hundreds of tons of steel and precious open space into a problem that can be solved with really intelligent software.”

Both venture capital interests and the power engineering community will watch Altaeros’ Alaskan field trials with interest. If their high-altitude wind turbines deliver cost savings anywhere near projections, we could see an industry-wide shift away from conventional wind turbine designs.

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Credit: Altaeros Energies

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Feature Image Credit: Altaeros Energies