Palo Alto, Calif. -- The emergence of a new renewable energy industry often follows a familiar pattern.
First, technological breakthroughs occur. Second, various manufacturers begin to coalesce around standard designs and materials. Third, a national government and local conglomerates decide to make the market their own.
Look at solar. In the wake of the Arab oil crisis, the Japanese government devised its 'Project Sunshine' policy to help grow a solar industry. Sharp (TVs, pencils) and Kyocera (material science) became two of solar's early giants. In Denmark, a decades-old conglomerate called Vestas moved into wind in conjunction with a national efficiency and renewables policy and all the existing manufacturers converged around a three-blade design. Tidal and wave manufacturers have yet to coalesce around standards, but national markers have already been set. Scotland and Ireland have carved out programs to ensure the industry, if it takes off, will occur there.
High altitude wind -- which basically entails using kites and small planes to harvest energy from atmospheric winds -- exists only in the prototype and PowerPoint stage right now, but several national governments are already showing signs of interest.
"One country could dominate this industry," said Saul Griffith, Makani Power founder and freelance futurist, at the Airborne Wind Energy Conference taking place this week at Stanford University. "One country could win this by getting into it in a big way."
An early candidate could be the Netherlands. It is one of Europe's most technologically advanced nations. It is a somewhat natural location for wind -- windmills kept the country humming for centuries. And most of the established technologies that have emerged in the space already have a home in the region.
Just as importantly, the country has large and small companies that have already put a toe into the market. DSM, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that specializes in material sciences, wants to promote its Dyneema fabric as a material for fashioning tethers for airborne wind turbines. Dyneema is 15 times stronger than steel, resists corrosion, and does not wear out over time.
"This material will never show fatigue," said Hans Plug, a company manager.
The European Space Agency employed a 32-kilometer cable fashioned from Dyneema to tie two satellites together. Kitesurfer Alexandre Calzerquez set a world speed record of 94 kilometers an hour with a Dyneema cable. SkySails, the German company that rigs cargo ships with sails to cut fuel consumption, uses the material as well.
Meanwhile, startup Ampyx says it has tested 10-kilowatt airborne wind devices and will test a 100-kilowatt device a year from now. If all goes well, it will try to launch a 1-megawatt device at the end of 2012. The company, from the Netherlands, has also received a permit to test the devices in Dutch air space.
Ampyx's device essentially relies on the principles of fishing. The company has created a large glider attached to a tether. When it goes up, the glider pulls out the tether and makes a winch on the ground spin, sort of akin to the way a trout will pull line from a fishing reel. When the glider climbs, power gets produced. The wings can then be pitched down to let the glider descend. When lift begins again, more power is produced.
The 10-kilowatt prototype has a 5.5-meter wingspan and flies up to 300 meters. In some test flights, power production has exceeded 10 kilowatts, according to general Manger Bas Lansdorp. The 100-kilowatt device will have a 15-meter wingspan and will fly at 350 meters, while the 1-megawatt device will fly at 400 meters. The 10-kilowatt prototype is shown in the photo.
Will high-altitude wind ever be viable as an industry? That's the big question. Investors have already indicated that they want to concentrate on established technologies like conventional wind, solar and geothermal. On the other hand, high-altitude wind has a few potential advantages. The turbines take far less steel and concrete than conventional turbines. Atmospheric winds are far more consistent and more powerful than winds closer to the ground, thereby reducing wind's intermittency problem. The public's fear of having power plants in the sky could potentially be overcome with more testing. NIMBY issues are potentially minimized. Yes, it's a stretch, but hey, solar looked kooky 40 years ago, too. It all depends on future circumstances.
Many aerospace giants also need a growth market. Honeywell is speaking at this conference.