Wind energy innovation takes off, with airborne technology breakthrough

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Dutch cleantech group Ampyx Power delivered a world first breakthrough in the emerging ‘Airborne Wind Energy’ industry last Thursday, completing a fully automated test flight of over 50 minutes with its PowerPlane prototype.

The successful test flight proves the concept that wind can be converted into energy using an automatically controlled glider plane, which is then delivered via a tether to an electricity generator on the ground. It also reminds us that innovation in the wind industry is still a happening thing, with holds plenty more promise for the renewable future.

Companies like GE are doing it on a fairly basic, but important level – GE announced last week that it was co-developing (with NREL) “architectural fabrics” for the manufacture of new turbine blades that could cut price of wind energy by 25-40 per cent. But in the more loftily innovative sub-sectors, like airborne wind energy, there is also plenty of activity.

Ampyx Power’s energy generating glider plane, pictured below, looks a lot less otherworldly-looking than some of its competitors’ prototypes – see the Google-backed Makani Airborne Wind Turbine, and the blimp-like device from Boston-based Alteros Energies. It has a 5.5 meters wingspan and produces, on average, 6kW during the flight, with peaks of over 15kW – although the company says that the tests were performed in relatively low wind speeds, and that during stronger winds the plane could produce peak power of 50-60kW.

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Ampyx says it has started scaling up the technology to 15m wingspan PowerPlane, and that its first commercial system will produce as much power as a mid-sized conventional wind turbine with a rotor diameter of 50 meters, and at a lower cost than most.

Ampyx’s managing director, Wolbert Allaart, says the company cuts costs through its relatively conservative use of materials. Combined, the glider plane and tether weigh less than 400 kilograms, compared to the tower and blades of a mid-sized wind turbine, which together weigh about 120,000 kilograms.

“And since our power generator is on the ground instead of on top of a steel tower, foundations required for the system are much smaller. In essence, we are replacing steel and concrete by advanced technology,” he says.

Allaart says that after a second scale-up step, the company hope to achieve cost levels which can compete, “without subsidies, with any other form of electricity generation, including coal and gas-fired power plants.”

And being much smaller, and much higher up in the air, the technology also solves problems of visibility – which with a rise of NIMBYism is increasing causing difficulties in the roll-out of large-scale wind farms.  

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