The Science of Sustainability

Airborne Wind Energy

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Editor's Note: 10/24/12 – We are saddened to report that Corwin Hardam, wind energy pioneer and CEO of Makani Power has died unexpectedly at age 38.
pdf Airborne Wind Energy Educator Guide ( pdf ) A resource for using QUEST video in the classroom.

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A dreamer stares up into the sky, watches the clouds slowly pass by and ponders what could be. From da Vinci to Newton to the Wright brothers to the little kid down the street, sometimes there’s a fine line between the day-dreamer and the visionary. And now a group of innovative thinkers are looking at those same passing clouds in a whole new way.

Looking up at the jet stream, Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist from the Carnegie Institution of Global Ecology at Stanford University says, “We find that there’s more than 100 times the power necessary to power civilization in these high altitude winds.” 100 times the energy to power the world is going to get people's attention.

The global need for clean energy is pushing scientists and engineers to search for new, untapped sources of energy. “To solve this problem we need a real revolution in our system of energy development,” continues Caldeira, “We need huge amounts of power, and the things that can provide huge amounts of power include fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas; nuclear power, solar power and wind.” The strongest and most consistent winds are found in the jet stream as high as 30,000 feet above the earth. But how do you harness the wind power from that high? Now the race is on to find the answer to that question.

It may seem pie-in-the-sky, but over 20 companies around the world are now working to develop technology to tap the strong and consistent power of high altitude wind. One company we profiled here on QUEST, Makani Power in Alameda, California, has received a $15 million grant from Google to build a wing concept that would autonomously fly in high circles, capturing energy with small turbines and sending the power down its tether. Other companies are exploring the use of kites, parachutes, balloons and other fanciful flying machines.

There is no shortage of skeptics and there are plenty of obstacles to hurdle before true high altitude wind energy can get off the ground. But still, it’s fun and interesting to stare up at the floating clouds and dare to dream.

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Category: Climate, Energy, Engineering, Environment, Physics, Television

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Chris Bauer

About the Author ()

Chris Bauer is a Media Producer for QUEST. Chris has nearly 20 years experience working in broadcast television; producing sports, history, technology, science, environment and adventure related programming. He is a two-time winner of the international Society of Environmental Journalists Award for Outstanding Television Story and has received multiple Northern California Emmy Awards. Some of his Quest stories have been featured in the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, United Nations Association Film Festival, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC. A 5th generation Bay Area resident and a graduate of St. Mary's College of California, his hobbies include canoeing, snowboarding, wood-working and trying to play the ukulele. He and his family live in San Francisco.
  • Peter Allen Sharp

    Thanks for your program on Airborne Wind Energy. I'm working on concepts that may be able to:
    – Tap the energy of the jet streams using twin dirigibles tethered together and carrying wind turbines to sail back and forth across a jet stream to produce liquid hydrogen.
    – Create both vertical axis and horizontal axis wind turbines that function much like kites with wind turbines.
    – Tap the energy of the open oceans using huge fleets of Turboships carrying walls of vertical axis wind turbines and power generating kites. The Turboships sail slowly back and forth in order to maintain position while producing liquid hydrogen.

  • http://twitter.com/TechAlmanac1 Gregg McPherson

    Beautifully produced video on the subject. The last statement that we need to get started exploring something is the key takeaway. We will never get there without these early trials.

  • Joe Faust

    Over 1000 persons are now in this kite energy quest; they are communicating via an open forum AirborneWindEnergy and also share tech through EnergyKiteSystem (dot) net Interested persons are welcome.