Altaeros Energies employs aerospace technologies to lift a small wind turbine to 1,000 feet off the ground where the wind is stronger. The power produced by the airborne wind turbine (AWT) is sent to the ground via conductors with the unit tethered to the earth.
The MIT-, Harvard-, and Air Force-trained team at Altaeros just completed a test of a power-producing prototype which actually works, and lifted a wind turbine 350 feet off the ground to generate double the power at high altitude than at typical tower height. The test in the video was completely automated, according to co-founder, Adam Rein -- unpiloted and able to "lift, generate, and land without any active controls." These tests took place in the middle of winter in northern Maine.
The Air Force still uses tethered helium inflatable technology -- called aerostats, the industrial cousins of blimps -- on project construction. So, the inflatable technology is not entirely new.
Here's the video:
Rein notes that the company uses an "off-the-shelf" 2.5-kilowatt, 3.7-meter, 3-blade wind turbine merged with helium inflatables that have lifted radar systems for decades. The unit is rated to go to about 1,000 feet in the boundary layer. The tallest terrestrial wind turbine is 350 feet high.
Altaeros looks to deploy the units in off-grid and hard to reach spots such as military bases, remote villages, oil and gas sites, eventually even off-shore applications. Power in those areas is typically diesel gensets with an expensive price tag of getting the diesel delivered and a total cost of $0.50 to $0.75 per kilowatt-hour. Altaeros claims it cost will be "a third of that."
Lending itself to these remote sites, the unit AWT is "really easy and cheap to set up," according to Rein, and "the whole system packs down to smaller than a compact car."
Regulatory bodies and the powers that be are beginning to recognize the existence of this new technology. The FAA has put out draft regulations for high-altitude tethered wind turbines. Rein claims the AWT design can overcome some of the challenges of traditional types wind turbines -- making them quieter with less bird and radar impacts. Garrad Hassan, a leading wind consultancy, has taken a look at the technology as well.
However, technical, regulatory, financing, and environmental risks remain for this alluring technology.
Altaeros is funded by private seed investors, the USDA, and the CEC. Other players in this field include Makani Power, SkyWind Power, Magenn, Ampyx, KiteGen -- also exploring this part of the atmosphere.