We who advocate for clean, renewable alternatives like solar and wind power are up against a big roadblocks. As things presently stand, renewables have a ways to go before they reach cost parity with fossil fuels. Conventional wisdom suggests that parity will come when the costs of fossil fuels are equal to those of solar technologies (actually, when environmental damage, related illnesses and military costs to protect sources are factored in, we’re already there). As far as wind power goes, even on the windiest places on earth, it’s doubtful that covering the landscape with wind turbines (which nobody wants to look at) would even come close to meeting our current and growing energy demands.
But… what if we looked to the windiest places off the earth? For large-scale wind generation, that might be just what we need to do.
Winds at ground level, even in Hawaii, are not constant – and except during the hurricane season, not usually strong enough to be cost-effective in replacing conventional forms of electrical generation. 16,000 feet up, it’s another story; jet stream winds have the capability of generating 100 times more energy than ground-based wind turbines – and at half the cost of the lowest rates in the country (so, about .02-.04c a kilowatt hour). While each of the small, independent companies currently involved in developing this exciting new technology are pursing slightly different paths, the basic concept is a flying wind turbine, stationed in the jet stream, delivering electrical energy to the ground via a series of aluminum cables.
As you might expect, realization of this idea is not without considerable challenges. The main question is: how do you keep the generator aloft and control it without the risk of it crashing to the ground? Another problem is maintenance. Even conventional aircraft such as helicopters require frequent and substantial maintenance after only a few hours of flight, and even in flight, helicopter rotors require constant fine adjustments to their pitch (angle).
One Canadian company, Magenn, has plans for a generation system that is suspended by means of a helium balloon. Another company based in California is experimenting with an alternative arrangement of multiple rotors that would address the issue of adjusting the pitch for every small change in conditions. Meanwhile, scientists at a university in the Netherlands have built a model that uses elaborate kites.
Controlling these devices from the ground also presents many challenges and will require some highly sophisticated computer hardware and software.
p>But the technology exists, and for large-scale wind power generation, it may be closer than we think.</>