The Seeds of a New Kind of Energy


In that entry I said that the highest wind densities in the country are above North Dakota. That was a lie. Well, okay, lie is a strong word. North Dakota does have the strongest wind you can feel when you lick your finger and stick it in the air. But it’s not the strongest in the country.

That is a place where winds howl unrelentingly near 50 miles per hour and occasionally leap well over 200. Where half of the time the wind could generate 8 kilowatts per square meter (that’s roughly four homes powered by a space the size of my crappy TV).

Where is this amazing place? Some long lost corner of Alaska? Florida during a hurricane? Try New York City. Thirty thousand feet above New York City, to be precise.

Here is a little secret that scientists have known since the early eighties: there is enough power in the upper troposphere to power the entire planet 50, maybe 100 times over. Forget what you have heard about floating solar panels and offshore wind turbines, jet stream winds are the most power-rich regions on the planet (the sun, at its hottest at the equator on a cloudless day, drops only about one kilowatt per square meter).

This led a tiny community of inventors to organize the first-ever international conference on “high altitude wind,” or flying wind turbines two weeks ago. Although it sounds like, well, chasing windmills, Google has recently invested somewhere around $25 million in high altitude wind. However, outside of Google, most investors and government scientists still consider it to be kind of space-age and prefer to bet on solar or biofuels.

But this may be a gross oversight. At the conference, presentations showed a dazzling number of kites and wings that fly while tethered to the ground. The audience was mostly early stage inventors and out-of-the-box entrepreneurs. I was the only member of the press covering the event. Even so, the presentations were surprisingly feasible. Several demonstrated that within less than three years we could be generating industrial scale electricity that would be cheaper and more reliable than any turbines fixed to the ground and maybe even coal. Moreover, there’s no need for any fancy new nano-fibers or synthetic organisms needed by other green energy schemes. It’s just a matter of combining what we already have. I spoke with an observer from aeronautical giant Honeywell (the only such company in attendance) on the last day of the conference. I expected him to scoff at the flying boomerangs and spinning blimps on display. However, he said that the various devices were all very possible with current engineering knowledge. In fact, there really aren’t any technical challenges to putting a wind farm a few thousand feet off the ground (we already do it with cameras to catch drug smugglers). The only real hurdles are getting investment and convincing the public to believe in it.

Which brings me to the newest round of ARPA-E funding. ARPA-E, for those who don’t know it, is a Department of Energy program offering grants for game-changing new energy solutions. It’s like DARPA, but with ten times less cash and without the invisible tanks and nuclear bunker-busters. The idea was to create a pool of money for truly new energy technologies that could revolutionize the energy sector. In short, the kind of technologies on display in this little-noticed conference. However, in its first round of disbursement, ARPA-E’s selections were less than game-changing. Its biggest pot of cash went to biofuels that, while cleaner than coal or gas, would still burn carbon. The other big winner was in energy storage, which is useful, but doesn’t really address the basic problem. About $8 million went to automotive technologies that car companies should be paying for themselves. Only 4 of the 37 grants went to what I would call renewable power and those were small improvements to existing technologies, like slightly more efficient turbines.

I don’t mean to look a gift grant in the mouth, but I think we can do better. To be honest, I don’t know if a flying wind farm will work or not. But I do know that if it did it’s the kind of solution that could actually replace coal and that the people doing it are serious scientists. Isn’t that worth a more serious look? Stay tuned, the next round of grants is coming out soon.
By Erik Vance

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