Makani, the airborne wind energy developer owned by Google’s parent, Alphabet, will start testing its fly-gen turbine-bearing plane concept in Hawaii next year.
The tests will give Makani its first experience of operating the M600 airborne wind energy prototype away from a desert environment and over inhabited space near towns and an airport, said Makani’s head, Dr. Fort Felker. He declined to say when in 2018 Makani would move to Hawaii.
Originally, the San Francisco-based company was reportedly planning a move to Kohala, a volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, in 2015. “We’ll just stick with ‘next year,’” Felker told GTM. “We frequently find our job is harder than we think.”
Nevertheless, he hit back at a recent Bloomberg report that claimed Makani was “struggling to take flight,” with waning support from Alphabet.
Staff levels at the technology developer, which sits within Alphabet’s X research arm, have changed in response to shifting project priorities, according to Felker.
“Makani has been proving energy kite technology for about a decade, and over that time, different skill sets have been needed,” he said.
Not long ago, he claimed, Makani built up staff for protoyping and testing. ”Now that we have multiple units, our need for that skill set has diminished,” he said.
Alphabet remains committed to the project, he confirmed, even though it is still unclear when, or if, Makani will be commercially viable. “X looks at problems with a long-term view,” he commented.
“We're looking for things that need a radical new breakthrough and probably will take five to 10 years to develop, simply because of the size and intractability of the problems we're hoping to solve,” said a source at X.
The prize for Makani and other airborne wind energy (AWE) developers is to arrive at a technology that can harvest more wind power than traditional turbines, at a fraction of the cost.
Wind kites sweep an area larger than can be reached with turbine blades, without the need for towers, nacelles and associated materials. The small-jet-plane-sized M600, for example, is designed to deliver 600 kilowatts and weighs less than 2 tons.
This is around 98 percent less than the 87 tons of material that goes into a Vestas V44/600 turbine, which has a similar power output. AWE developers hope such drastic reductions in materials costs will yield equally impressive improvements in levelized cost of energy (LCOE).
X-Wind Powerplants, a German AWE company, claims the technology could achieve an LCOE of between around $0.02 and $0.05 per kilowatt-hour. Felker wouldn't disclose LCOE for the Makani kite.
“It’s a terrible metric,” he said, but acknowledged that “we know that for energy kites to be successful, we need to offer energy at a price that’s attractive.”
Despite this, it seems Makani is not intending to compete head on with traditional wind generation.
Felker said the big opportunity for AWE is in places where it's hard to install standard wind turbines, such as on islands lacking large cranes or offshore near coastal towns and cities bordering deep water. “That’s a lot of places,” he said.
There's a big challenge for Makani: Traditional wind energy is increasingly eating AWE’s lunch.
This month, for instance, offshore managed to undercut nuclear and gas on cost in the U.K.
Meanwhile, MAKE Consulting estimates European offshore wind LCOEs will reach around $0.07 per kilowatt-hour by 2022.
And while analysts do not foresee AWE becoming a commercial reality any time before 2025, the floating foundations allowing offshore wind to be placed in deep waters have already “come of age,” industry body WindEurope believes, and are being installed commercially.
The nascent AWE industry seems to be aware that its time is limited, with several players keen to announce progress.
X-Wind’s CEO Uwe Ahrens, for example, said the company is planning a 2-megawatt pilot after building a test track in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Northern Germany, for $6.6 million.
Another European AWE hopeful, Kitenergy of Turin, Italy, is aiming to carry out prototype testing on machines of up to 250 kilowatts from this fall through to spring 2018.
“The race for reaching the first sale of an AWE system will probably finish by the end of this decade, and our business plan is aligned with this statement,” said Kitenergy marketing and communication head Stefano Sanmartino.
“However, there are many challenges we still need to overcome before achieving sales. The road to market and sell AWE generators isn’t easy and takes time, but we are still full of enthusiasm for our technology. And we are not the only ones.”