SkySail Power’s airborne wind turbine can generate electricity in high elevations. (Courtesy of SkySails Group)
One day, massive sails could become another clean energy solution. German startup SkySails Power installed a software-controlled gigantic sail over the isle of Mauritius, east of Madagascar, in December 2021. During its ascent, the sail unravels a tether hooked up to a wench on the ground, causing the generator to generate electricity. However, the tether can only go as far as 400 meters, so when the sail reaches this height, the software pulls it back down to 200 meters, repeating the entire process. This produces sufficient energy to power up to 50 homes on the island. It may not seem like a lot, but it’s a great option for alternative wind power.
Generally, wind power requires massive turbines deployed in areas experiencing strong, consistent winds to generate carbon-free electricity. Wind power capacity expansion requires ten times more land than a natural gas or coal power plant installation just to produce an equal amount of energy.
The US needs more wind power to achieve its climate goals. This is potentially problematic because wind turbines provide optimal performance in large open fields at high elevations. Otherwise, they can also be deployed in offshore areas, which present some obstacles. In such cases, many turbines are fitted to the sea floor, limiting them to shallow waters. Plus, these are difficult to maintain and costly to develop versus onshore turbines.
Now, startups are creating flying wind turbines that can be deployed in mountains or the deep sea. These capture stronger winds hundreds of meters in the air compared to the tallest land-based wind turbines. SkySail Power focuses on sail-based win turbines, while other companies are building systems with rigid wings or drones attached to the tether’s end. A few have generators that transport energy down the tether instead of generating it on land.
Deploying these systems could provide an alternative solution to traditional wind turbines. (Courtesy of SkySails Group)
Airborne wind turbines are also simpler to install and less costly to manufacture and transport than ground-based turbines. Regardless, these systems still have some major drawbacks. For instance, they must meet space and land regulations, which don’t exist yet since the systems were recently introduced.
Some people may raise a few concerns about these airborne wind turbine sails. The systems could obstruct their view when looking toward the sky. Since the tethers move quickly, they might also harm wildlife, such as birds, due to an in-flight collision. So before deploying them, the systems need to be safe for anyone on the ground as well. However, the downside is that fleets of turbine wind sails need to be deployed just to generate sufficient electricity. Even then, keeping the tethers untangled remains a priority, so the sails or drones need plenty of space from each other.
But I suspect in a short time of operation, most will be on the ground, underwater – tangled in something.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s 2021 report stated airborne wind energy “could provide a significant contribution to the US renewable energy supply.” It also recommends the country explore a decade-long research plan into the technology.
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