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August 08, 2010

Actual Good News


If you read just one thing today, make it Gar Lipow's Grist article about high-altitude wind power:

The higher the altitude, the faster the wind blows. Other factors being equal, the power available from wind is the cube of its speed. Wind at 1 kilometer can generate a bit less than twice the energy of a turbine at 100 meters. A turbine at ten kilometers can generate eight or more times the energy of a turbine at 100 meters. Estimated high altitude energy potential is about 100 times all energy human civilization currently consumes.

At first glance, the potential of high altitude wind power appears tantalizingly out of reach. While we could probably build one kilometer wind towers, the cost of towers that size are unlikely to ever be low enough that doubling generation will come close to paying for them. And if a one kilometer tower is impractical, a ten kilometer tower seems even less plausible.

Fortunately, giant towers are not the only means we have to reach high altitudes. Kites have been used for millennia, balloons for centuries, motorized planes and helicopters for more than 100 years. Put turbines on an automated kite, plane, balloon or helicopter with no human pilot. Run a tether to transmit the electricity to the ground, and in (in many cases) to provide power for the initial launch. The result is a flying energy generator, a wind turbine or turbines on a flying platform that can provide higher energy density and higher energy reliability and capacity factor than ground based wind turbines at a lower cost. Many developers claim that such flying energy generators (FEGs) could produce electricity with a life cycle cost of less than 2 cents per kWh with a capacity factor of 70% and above (comparable to the capacity factor of coal plants.) This is not merely an idea. A number of companies have working prototypes. It has been proven possible, though not yet practical. The only way to determine practicality will be for someone (either the government or venture capitalists) to fund the transition from proof of concept prototypes to quarter scale commercial prototypes and finally to full scale commercial prototypes. Any one of the companies working on this could probably be fully funded for the cost of the stationary budget of the Department of Energy.

The rest.

You may remember that a recent study found that with current technology, the U.S. has enough wind power at 80 meters to produce nine times the amount of electricity (not total energy) we consume. What Gar Lipow is talking about would require some technological developments, but the potential is far higher (100 times total energy usage, rather than nine times electricity usage); it's cheaper; it's much less intermittent; and it could be generated closer to where it would be consumed.

There's so much bad news about the world all the time I'm not sure how to react to good news. It feels sort of weird.

The pencil-necked geeks among us may want to read an academic paper from which Gar Lipow got some of his information, "Harnessing High Altitude Wind Power":


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at August 8, 2010 03:09 PM

you don't even really need turbines. The Laddermill ( concept is a bunch of tethered gliders being pushed by wind. I also like the turbine-based Magenn system (

The big problem seems to me to be getting the energy back to earth in an environmentally reasonable fashion

Posted by: BillCinSD at August 8, 2010 03:43 PM

sorry, no money, busy saving afpak from afpakis, k thnx bai

Posted by: Uncle Sam at August 8, 2010 04:48 PM

Okay, I'll pony up another $25 to join the $50 dollar club just to set a good example. Come on all your earth-savers. Send Consortiumnews some money to keep going!

Posted by: N E at August 8, 2010 05:59 PM

Glad to see the link here to Gar's work, which is more informed than my own musings on these topics. Small quibble though: I don't think that the Department of Energy has a stationary budget. But I agree that it spends a lot of money on stationery. Is that what's meant?

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at August 8, 2010 08:02 PM

>Small quibble though: I don't think that the Department of Energy has a stationary budget. But I agree that it spends a lot of money on stationery. Is that what's meant?


Oh and as to Jon's comments: "There's so much bad news about the world all the time I'm not sure how to react to good news. It feels sort of weird."

Well the good news here is that we might save the world for an expenditure of for around 30 million dollars. The bad news is that the odds are we won't spend that 30 million dollars. There, does everything feel normal again?

Posted by: Gar Lipow at August 8, 2010 10:06 PM

LOTS of wind machines going up out this way.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at August 8, 2010 10:30 PM

is this what they mean by building castles in the air?

(sorry couldnt resist)

as someone said the problem is not technological, it's political.

Posted by: almostinfamous at August 9, 2010 02:04 AM

Might as well try to capture the power from lightning strikes, as well, while you're up there.

Posted by: Jack at August 9, 2010 02:31 AM

Flying energy generators = wind turbines on kites? Well, Murphy's Law always applies (that which can go wrong, will go wrong); and when they fall down, as will happen once in a while, won't they break not only themselves but whatever they fall down on? Is this really a good idea?

In my vision of a practical energy future, a lot more people will be getting around on bicycles, instead of using either fossil or renewable energy to push a ton of vehicle around with them.

I could be wrong.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at August 9, 2010 09:01 AM

dr. mistah charley, we'll have to use the remaining fossil fuels to make falling-kite-proof plastic helmets.

why not wind turbines on mountains? i know, getting the energy back down the mountain is a problem, but delivery of stored energy is the same problem no matter how it's generated, no?

Posted by: anonymous at August 9, 2010 12:23 PM

As to lighting strikes, we've had tethered balloons up at 15,000 feet for years at a time and handled lighting strikes. FEGs can be built to handle routine lighting conditions, and landed when severe. As to crashes, like I said in FAQ, there is every reason to believe they will be rare. (Follow the link for details as to why.) But also as I said, nothing is perfectly safe, They will be safer than airports, safer than most of the says we generate energy now.

As to preferring bicycles: are you planning on living completely without electricity? Do you expect everyone else to live completely without electricity? Because if the answer to either one of those questions is "no" then isn't it best to generate it as cheaply and cleanly as possible.

As to generation on mountains: you don't get the same capacity factor. And no storage is not the same because a wind turbine on the ground (including a mountain) runs fewer hours than one in air. If the turbine runs more often, then you need less storage.

And I believe you are quoting me when I say the problem is political not technological. But that does not mean better technology does not make the political fight a tiny bit easier. And I'm not 100% sure these will work. I'm 100% sure there is a good enough chance these will work that is worth gambling a small amount of money to find out. Probably an amount equal to the budget line items in the U.S. DOE that cover stationary purchases. These might informally be referred to as "the DOE stationary budget".

Posted by: Gar Lipow at August 9, 2010 01:13 PM

For those of you whose interest has been piqued by Ms. Lipow's piece, I recommend checking out some talks by Saul Griffith, the president of one of the companies noted at the end of Ms. Lipow's item, Makani Power, and a very engaging speaker. Look in the Long Now Foundation section of, and over at TED.

Posted by: Jeff at August 9, 2010 07:06 PM

There's lots of good news...haven't you heard, the Singularity draweth nigh!

Posted by: seth at August 9, 2010 10:15 PM

I have a bunch of friends over at Makani - smart folks, good idea. Kites are actually pretty easy to keep up in general, especially once you realize that the high-altitude air currents being talked about are pretty damn stable, not like the come-and-go gusts we're used to experiencing down here in the lower troposphere.

Posted by: saurabh at August 11, 2010 04:26 PM