Airborne Wind Energy: Bringing Energy Transitions to New Heights?
Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Alternative energy and clean energy in Southeast Asia is a huge game changer that brings quality life to unprivileged and off-the-grid communities. Let's take a closer look into airborne wind energy and explore the amazing renewable energy sources out there!
Thank you Gao Yiming for this comprehensive look into the world of Airborne Wind Energy:
If you are looking at any wind energy commentaries or news articles nowadays, pictures of the 3-blade wind turbine, the design that is most common in the market today, will probably be looking back at you.
However, the imagination of inventors in catching the wind extends in many forms other than the 3-bladed machines. One of those innovations that allows us to extend our arms higher in the sky is that of airborne wind energy.
💡Innovation Brief: What Makes Airborne Wind Special?
It is approximated that 400TW is the amount of near surface wind resources available that we can harvest by conventional wind turbines. By raising an airborne device higher into the sky, it is approximated that we will gain access to 1800TW of extractable kinetic energy from the sky, enough energy to power the earth a hundred times over .
An illustration of how Airborne Wind Generators work, and why they receive higher wind speed.
As a technology in development, airborne wind energy has gathered curious attention from many professionals in the energy sector. Such anticipation are with good reasons, with airborne wind possessing many unique selling positions.
Some of the commonly discussed advantages are:
We have long known renewable energy and wind as something that is unpredictable and inconsistent. Such supply inconsistency is one of the challenges in developing renewable technologies.
However, wind is no longer an intermittent resource the higher up we go. According to CATAPULT (UK's leading innovation and research center on offshore renewable energy), winds are significantly less affected by friction from the ground at a height of 100-150m above ground and are forced by larger atmospheric movements. Sometimes, such upper level winds are so large and are so predictable that they have names for them.
Extended Wind Resources
Although both wind energy solutions, airborne wind is a complementary solution instead of a competing solution as compared to wind turbines. With the tallest wind tower standing at 200m, conventional turbines are not tall enough to harvest upper level winds beyond 300m.
That resource is basically untapped. By enabling us to tap on a new resource, it increases the geographical market for wind power globally.
Material Reduction and Lower Lifecycle Impact
Benchmarking against conventional wind a conventional wind turbine, airborne wind energy modules use 90% less material as compared to conventional wind turbines, bringing down the capital cost, life cycle emissions and material use in the production lifecycle.
Reduced Logistics and Ease of Operations
Currently, the deployment of turbines require the transportation and installation of increasingly huge turbine blades. The increasing size of turbies adds on to the complexity of installation and maintenance.
In contrast, the reduced logistics of airborne wind energy can allow for easier and faster deployments in more remote locations, and also allow for the structure to be transported off-site for maintenance tasks.
Cost Reduction Potential
The costs of airborne wind energy are still very high today. But with potentially less materials use and easier maintenance, the cost of electricity generation can also stand to be radically reduced as the technology matures.
In a projection by CATAPULT for use of offshore generations, airborne wind has the long term potential of attaining a LCOE (levelized cost of electricity) of £30/MWh, as compared to the £50/MWh LCOE of offshore wind turbines.
The principles of energy generation by Airborne Wind. Infographic by Airborne Wind Europe
As with all engineering and technological innovations, there will be many initial different designs, concepts, and subsystems choices. Airborne wind generators generally go into two classifications:
The forces on the airborne device drives mechanical work of a generator on the ground. Power is generated when the airborne unit is pulled into the sky by prevailing winds. It is then resetted and pulled back in the recovery phase with changes in the flight aerodynamics.
Generators like turbines are being mounted on the airborne unit and the electrical power being generated onboard is transmitted to the ground by ropes with electrical cables. Fly generation is considered by some as the more complicated of the two types with the need to mount power systems on the airborne unit, and most of the technology developers nowadays are focused on ground generation units.
(Note that other key design parameters like the types of control systems, wing types, and capacities vary a lot in current technological developments.)
📊Market Brief: The Story So Far and the Protagonists
“We wanted to use the simplicity and beauty of kites to make wind power cheaper and more accessible for billions of people. But teaching a kite to fly itself, to fly autonomously, has never been done before.”- Makani Energy Team Currently, the market airborne wind energy market remains in a learning-by-doing stage and the players remain fragmented. Due to the promise of the technology, airborne wind energy has attracted many startups, research groups, and industry communities to hustle hard to commercialise the technology.
The many groups looking to develop and commercialize Airborne Wind. Infographic by Airborne Wind Europe
Notable Drivers and Opportunities
Strong Industry Push
According to Airborne Energy Europe, at least 20 original equipment manufacturers are developing the technology, with several companies planning to commercialize systems by 2025. This signified continued and persistent technological push for improvements and scale from confident industry players.
Maturing of Enabling Technologies
Advancements in aerospace and mechatronic systems design are key factors in unlocking the concealed potential of airborne wind energy . With further development of enabling technologies like advanced aerodynamic simulations and advanced control systems, the potential of airborne wind stands to be further realised.
Unique Market Opportunities
Since it extended extractable wind resources with operating height and ease of deployments, they can be used in newer situations that may not be suitable for traditional wind and renewables. Such will include hurricane and typhoon regions, deep sea and floating structures, difficult to access areas, low wind sites, and on vessels as auxiliary supplies.
“AWE could unlock the “stranded resource” of wind in off-shore locations where the water is too deep to fix conventional turbine towers to the ocean floor”- The Promises and Challenges of Airborne Wind Energy
“Critical technical challenges have been mastered, such as automatic energy harvesting, reliable sensors, state estimation as well as developing tethered aircraft and kites for demanding aerodynamic load cycles”- Airborne Wind Europe
Notable Doubts, Challenges, and Setbacks
As with any other technologies, the road to commercialization is a tough one and there will be a lot of failed ventures and false starts. More recently in 2020, the closure of a long time market leader Makani Power has cast some clouds over the developing field.
Investor Confidence and Valley of Death
The general confidence in airborne wind took a hit when the industry leader Makani Power closed shop. While this can be attributed to factors like the complexity of their Fly Generation system and tightening budgets of Makani’s investor Alphabet, it shows that the fate of technology providers may lie in investor confidence in this “high risk” market.
Bringing Down Cost and Economies of Scale
The determining factor of whether the technology eventually takes off is the energy production and the LCOE. The development of airborne wind energy is met with the falling prices of wind and solar currently as difficulties in penetrating the highly competitive and regulated European electricity market. Competition against all other generation sources.
Complex technology with limited experience
Airborne wind is still a very complex technology because of the inherent chaotic nature of flight, as compared to conventional generation technologies that are static on the ground. Challenges that remain include automation of launching and landing and designing the right structures and materials to sustain this kind of loading cycles.
“So far, no airborne wind company has developed a commercially viable product, even those that have been in business for over a decade”- Will Airborne Wind Energy Ever Take Off?
“After considering many factors, I believe that the road to commercial viability is a much longer and riskier road than we'd hoped and that it no longer makes sense for Makani to be an Alphabet company”- Astro Teller, Captain at Moonshots Factory at X
“Even if an individual kite can fly for two days straight, a large-scale AWE farm with 300 such kites would still experience 54,000 take-off-and-landing events each year. This phase has to be proven against any fault with an extremely high probability”- The Promises and Challenges of Airborne Wind Energy
❓What It Means For Us: A Future With Airborne Wind Energy?
As people interested in developing sustainable energy systems, we pay keen attention to these innovative developments because we want to see whether there is a potential to realise the imagined solutions in our respective contexts and spheres of influence.
After all, we are all authors of the sustainable future we hope to write in our capacities.
Of course, it will be a long drawn topic to talk about integrating and deploying airborne wind energies given its current maturity and market penetration rates. But by providing the contexts of some innovations, laying out some critical questions, and providing the resources in our innovation toolkits, we can have a starting point and get some bearings in exploring the innovation as a possible solution to our problems in the long run.
Food For Thought
Will you deploy this technology in your country and region? What do you think will be the technological and market challenges in doing so?
What do you think are the main challenges and pitfalls in developing this innovation if it becomes more mature and commercially available?
What are some of the things that can be done to bring down the development costs of the technology?
What are some policy and regulatory changes that are needed to support this technology?
More guiding questions to how to better answer these can be found under the “Guiding Questions” section if you scroll all the way down.
📔 Additional Resources
Recommended Journals on Airborne Wind Energy
 Airborne Wind Energy Systems: A Review of the Technologies - A. Cherubini, A. Papini, R. Vertechy and M. Fontana, "Airborne Wind Energy Systems: A review of the technologies", Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, vol. 51, pp. 1461-1476, 2015.
 Harnessing Airborne Wind Energy: Prospects and Challenges - Z. Khan and M. Rehan, "Harnessing Airborne Wind Energy: Prospects and Challenges", Journal of Control, Automation and Electrical Systems, vol. 27, no. 6, pp. 728-740, 2016.
Video Resources on Airborne Wind Energy
Pulling Power from the Sky: The Story of Makani [Feature Film] Documentary on Makani Power. It is a very well documented journey on the development of the fly generation power developed by Makani, really focusing on the testing process and the human aspect of the project.
The Future of Wind Power? - Kite Power Systems Real Engineering with explanation of the airborne wind system developed by Kite Power System. The company has since been acquired by Kitemill. They video focuses on one kind of kite power system, but is still a very good
High-altitude wind energy from kites - TED-Ed TED-Ed talk, which is given by Saul Griffith, the founder of Makani Power. Makani Power has ceased operations in 2020 but this video is still a good brief on the system.
Some Wind Energy Resource Visualizations
Global Wind Atlas The Global Wind Atlas is a free, web-based application developed to help policymakers, planners, and investors identify high-wind areas for wind power generation virtually anywhere in the world, and then perform preliminary calculations.
Earth.Nullschool.Net A global map of wind, weather, and ocean conditions. It is a very nice animated visualization where we can visualise wind speeds at all atmospheric levels.
Online Information Sources on Airborne Wind Energy
Airborne Wind Europe Airborne Wind Europe is the association of the European Airborne Wind Energy Industry. It is the heart of knowledge exchange for the developing airborne wind industry in Europe. This is a very neat slide deck from them which comprehensively discusses airborne win developments.
An Introduction to Airborne Wind: CATAPULT In this research paper, CATAPULT focused on a high level introduction on Airborne Wind Energy and is focused on its opportunities and advantages specific to offshore applications.
Study on challenges in the commercialization of airborne wind energy systems: European Commission Study on challenges in developing AWES from the EU. Notably, one of the most insightful things from this report is the development pathways of the technology, outlining the possible pathway to commercialization for the industry.
Additional Guiding Questions
Who: Looking at Actors, Target Customers, and Value Chains
Who are the people that need to be involved when developing the solution?
Who can be the technology developers and equipment manufacturer in our markets?
Who are the target consumer and business markets that are going to be using the technology?
Who are the main interest groups around me and will this technology be aligned to their interests?
What: Looking at Innovation Development and Alternatives
What are different forms of this technology? Which is the best one?
What are the technology and infrastructure costs of this technology? What are some ways we can impact cost decrease?
What will you consider the technological readiness level (TRL) of this technology to be? What can be some of the enablers?
When: Looking at Temporal Factors of Development
What will the daily and seasonal variations in energy production be? How does that correspond to demand and load profiles?
What is the payback horizon for technologies that local investors are comfortable with and will that be a limiting factor?
What is the required runway on how long will it take to get the solution to ground?
Where: Looking at Spatial Factors of Development
Does your region have the wind resources required for deployment? What will be the environmental challenges in deployment?
Is it possible for airborne wind to reach grid price parity in your geographical region?
What will be the spatial proximity of deployment to demand centers? Will it be catered to high or low density energy demands?
Why: Does the solution solve the problem efficiently?
What kind of fundamental problems do the deployment of airborne wind solve? How does it play out in theory of changing models?
Is airborne wind an efficient way to solve the problem we seek to address? What are the alternatives?
How: How can the solution be realised?
How can we address some of the challenges that may have been raised in the 5Ws above?
How can we secure support, resources, and funding needed?
How can regulatory and policy changes help the development of airborne wind energy?