March 19, 2005
Don’t like fossil fuels? Nuclear power? Hydro dams? Go fly a kite. Really. The next great energy technology may well involve implausible-sounding machines called Flying Electric Generators, windmills 30,000 feet high and tethered to the ground by power lines.
No pollution. No greenhouse gases. No hazard to birds. Enough energy to meet the world’s needs many times over. And costs that are projected at one to two cents a kilowatt hour, far less than that of existing fuels.
These windmills would capture the plentiful power in the strong, steady winds that blow in the jet stream.
The visionaries floating these ideas are no crackpots. Inventor Bryan Roberts, an Australian engineer with a PhD from Cambridge who teaches at the University of Western Sydney, has a long history of getting inventions off the ground, including a tethered four-rotor helicopter built under a collaborative agreement with Bell Helicopters’ Australian agents. David Shepard, co-CEO with Roberts of Sky WindPower Corporation, the machine’s corporate developer, patented the optical scanner in the 1950s and then formed a company that sold the world’s first commercial OCR (optical character recognition) scanners, now at the Smithsonian Institute. Others at Sky WindPower, a San Diego-based corporation, also have impressive practical accomplishments in the corporate and military spheres to complement their flights of fancy.
The flying wind generator, drawing power from the local electric company through its tether, uses helicopter-like rotors to climb skyward and GPS technology to keep its bearings. Once at its desired altitude, the generator drifts in the wind while the rotors generate electricity and send power down the same tether that had powered its ascent. When it needs to come down to Earth, the flying machine can either come down on its own power, as helicopters do, or be winched in.
Sky WindPower plans to raise clusters of these aircraft – perhaps 600 at a time – above lands not far from metropolitan centres. Each cluster would have a capacity of 12,000 megawatts – equivalent to roughly 24 Pickering-sized nuclear reactors – and produce 90 million megawatt-hours a year – 25% more than those 20 Pickering plants would produce. Two of these clusters could more than meet Ontario’s entire power needs; seven Canada’s, not that it would ever be necessary or desirable to eliminate all other electricity technologies.
On land, the flying wind generator’s requirement is negligible. Floating above forests or farmers’ fields, the tethers would cost next to nothing in land or agricultural production while providing farmers with a bit of revenue for the use of their land. If a flying generator ever fell from the sky, as would be inevitable, it would crash in an unpopulated area and so represent minimal threat to human safety.
Above land, there is a cost – airplanes would need to be excluded from these areas, to avoid collisions with the flying generators or their tethers. But there is nothing new here. At 15 sites along the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. government for decades has tethered balloons carrying radar equipment to detect illegal flights by drug smugglers. These sites, which occur at altitudes up to 15,000 feet, appear on aeronautical charts and are well known to pilots, who in any case routinely deal with restricted air space. Sky WindPower calculates that less than one-quarter of 1% of U.S. airspace would need to be reserved, all away from populated areas, to meet all U.S. energy needs. That is far less than the amount of air space now restricted to civilian aviation.
Flying windmills have many advantages over their land-based counterparts which, because of factors such as contours of the land and daily heating and cooling patterns, often face either inadequate wind or turbulent winds, necessitating expensive designs. No such impediments occur in the jet stream, where air moves near-constantly and at several times the speed that it does at 100 feet off the ground, allowing much more energy to be captured from each square meter of wind.
While the wind blows well almost everywhere in the world, Canada is especially suited to flying turbines. The very best winds, 30,000 feet up, happen to blow along the Canada-U.S. border, where most of our population resides. At Montreal, Toronto, Windsor, Winnipeg or Regina, or Vancouver, a flying windmill will typically operate at 85% to 90% of its full capacity, about 50% higher than at many lower latitudes – and also higher than at more northerly latitudes. The skies above Gagetown, N.B., where a windmill would operate at 92% of its capacity, has one of the world’s best-recorded wind readings.
Roberts first began working on his concept in 1979. He has successfully flown prototypes in wind tunnels and in the sky. Sky WindPower now wants to scale up – its next prototype is designed and has the government permissions necessary for it to be tested in the California desert. It awaits only the $3-million needed to proceed.
Will investors take a flyer on this technology? So far, the big boys have stayed away, and for understandable reason. The smart money is moving to Arctic pipelines, nuclear plants, tar sands, LNG facilities and other government-subsidized energy systems that are with us in a big way only because government decrees it. The world’s energy entrepreneurs have all vanished, aside from a small band tilting at windmills in the sky.