Floating Wind Turbines Take to the Skies

The latest frontier in wind energy carries creativity and imagination to new heights.

NASA scientists are conducting what is being touted as the “first federally funded research effort to look at airborne wind capturing platforms.” If you’re having trouble visualizing that, imagine a blimp that doubles as a turbine.

The $100,000 grant is funding research based on the premise that high-altitude winds are a vast, untapped resource. According to NASA aerospace engineer Mark Moore, there is two to three times the wind velocity at an altitude of 2,000 feet when compared to ground levels. That translates into much more than two to three times the electricity because higher wind velocity means an exponential growth in power.

“The power goes up with the cube of that wind velocity,” Moore said. ”So it’s eight to 27 times the power production just by getting 2,000 feet up.”

The concept has a number of advantages over ground-based turbines. They don’t pose the same noise problems, and they are not a danger to birds because they are high above the flight path. They also don’t take up any space on the ground; their only connection is a small nanotether. Wind speeds at higher altitudes are also more consistent. This speaks to one of wind’s most glaring weaknesses, the intermittent nature of its resource.

The NASA scientists envision a source of power vastly more productive and reliable than what most of us have come to expect from wind power, even on a good day.

Moore describes a scenario in which turbines are sent into the 150 mph jet stream at 30,000 feet.

“Instead of 500 watts per meter, you’re talking about 20,000, 40,000 watts per square meter,” Moore said. Put into perspective, that’s a 4,000 to 8,000 percent increase over land turbines.

There are issues of location, which is why the most likely scenario involves placement over the ocean, several miles offshore, well out of the range of low-flying aircraft.

The scientists are focusing their efforts on developing methods the government can use to evaluate different concepts of high-altitude wind energy. Apparently, they are optimistic that competing ideas will emerge.

NASA’s optimism may not be unfounded. At least one private company is poised to take to the skies. Magenn Power, a company based in Ontario, Canada, and California, has touted its plans this year to manufacture the 100-kilowatt Magenn air rotor system (MARS), a helium-filled, tethered wind turbine that rotates around a horizontal axis, generating electricity for consumption or to a set of batteries or the power grid.

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