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Google is always working on advanced projects in its Google X lab — the birthplace of its self-driving cars, Google Glass, and a number of other technological advances. One such project is set to change the way we generate clean energy, thanks to a fleet of airborne wind turbines that fly like kites.
This all came to fruition when Google acquired wind energy company Makani Power two years ago. With the support of Google X and “ARPA-E,” an advanced research wing of department of Energy, Makani has developed lightweight, carbon-fiber kites that fly at an altitude of around 1,500 feet to generate power from the wind.
Let’s take a look at how these things work and what this means for the future of alternative energy.
How Google’s Wind Turbine Kites Work
These aren’t traditional kites — they look more like airplanes — but they rely on the same principles as kites to stay airborne and generate electricity. They’re sent into the air while tethered to a docking station on the ground. Once released, they start making large circles in the sky, which turns the plane’s propellers and spins internal turbines to generate power. The electrical energy is then transmitted back to the ground through a cable in the kite’s tether.
To fully understand how these kites work, it helps to know what’s going on inside a conventional wind turbine, as the process is largely the same.
Under the right conditions, modern wind turbines can harness power quite effectively. The force of the wind spins a large propeller, which converts kinetic energy into mechanical power. Generators then convert and transmit that energy as electricity. The problem is that wind is intermittent — we can only generate power when the wind is blowing, and that can make wind energy very expensive. Worst, it’s unreliable, meaning that we need drastically more capacity than we actually use to ensure the grid won’t go down when there’s a surge in usage.
Winds are stronger and more consistent at higher altitudes, which is why wind turbines are mounted on tall towers. But the Makani energy kites can operate more than ten times higher than traditional wind turbines, making them that much more effective. As the kite flies through the air in a big circle, it mirrors the functionality of the tip of a blade of a wind turbine.
By flying 1,500 feet in the air, the kites can capture as much as 50 percent more power than ground-based turbines. Beyond that, they require fewer resources to produce, so they can be deployed faster and inexpensively to generate more power at a lower cost.
Making Kite Turbines A Reality
Being acquired and folded into Google X was a big win for Makani. Now, the airborne wind turbine project is so promising that it has attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E research agency, which is providing Google with funds to pursue it further.
While the project seems to be on its way to revolutionizing wind energy, it does have some challenges to face along the way.
There are a number of potential hurdles in the realm of placement, for instance. Unlike current wind turbines, the kites cannot be placed on existing farmland or other areas with secondary uses — and they must be spaced further apart than traditional turbines. They also have to be at least a mile from public roads and power lines, for obvious safety reasons. Tethered wind turbines could also be bad for wildlife, causing more bird deaths than other wind generators – something that’s already a problem.
Many of these problems could be solved by deploying the kites offshore, but current regulatory restrictions would likely make it difficult to do that at scale.
With that said, Google’s Makani kites do provide a much-needed alternative approach to wind energy, even with their shortcomings. They use much less material, require less construction, and capture more wind energy more effectively than current models.
It’s entirely possible that airborne wind turbines will become an important part of the alternative energy race in the coming years. Even if they don’t become a standard, anything that can supplement our fossil fuel energy is a welcome effort.
What do you think about Google’s wind turbine kites? Do you see this as a worthy approach to alternative energy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!