The concept of high-altitude wind power production has been brought to the edge of commercial reality in the form of the Altaeros Energies turbine called the Buoyant Air Turbine (BAT).
The BAT is able to hover at heights of 1,000 to 2,000 feet in the air thanks to the helium-filled shell that surrounds the turbine. The shell is made of the same fabric that is used by blimps and sails and allows the turbine to ascend to the point where the winds are stronger and more consistent than those powering tower based turbines.
The technology is soon to be tested in Alaska where it will be powering microgrids located to the south of Fairbanks. The trial will be conducted over an 18 month period and will be funded by the Alaska Energy Authority. The authority has awarded Altaeros a $1.3 million grant from its Emerging Energy Technology Fund to support the testing.
Additional funding has been provided by RNT Associates International Pte Limited.
The places where the BAT will be trialled will be in rural areas that rely on gas and diesel generators for power. The cost of the electricity is typically around $1 per kilowatt-hour. The BAT has a capacity of 30 kW and the purpose of the trial will be to reduce the cost of electricity down to around 18 cents per kilowatt-hour.
This electricity cost is far higher than the cost of electricity produced in conventional markets but for extreme circumstances it will fill a need. The bonus is that it is clean and green electricity and it is easily brought on site.
A Mobile Wind Power Solution
While the technology promises to produce a more efficient source of wind power it is not designed to replace conventional tower mounted turbines. It is a way of bringing wind power to areas where it is not possible to place towers and it is also not economically viable.
Whereas it requires huge amounts of concrete, steel and a way of getting the materials into what might possibly be quite remote locations, it only takes a couple of shipping containers to get the BAT on site.
In fact, the image shown here gives an idea of how simple it is to transport the BAT from one location to the next, even after it has been inflated and readied to take off.
Ideal situations where BATs will be a good solution as an electricity source include:
- Military bases
- Island communities
- Remote locations
- Natural disaster sites
- Short term amusement parks
- Music festivals
- Sporting venues
Essentially, anywhere where a diesel generator is being employed to create power will be ideal for the deployment of a BAT.
The technology used to get the turbine airborne has been borrowed from that which is used for communications surveillance and weather monitoring equipment. The Altaeros system is also able to adjust the height and alignment of the turbine so that it can be placed in optimal conditions. As the winds change in direction and intensity, so too can the positioning of the BAT. This means that the power production can be maximized.
While the deployment of vast numbers of BATs to form large arrays is still many years away, the quick deployment of small numbers in areas that are in critical need is the focus.
And with the testing that is about to take place over the next 18 months, there is a greater likelihood that we will be seeing more Buoyant Air Turbines in the future.
Altaeros Energies was founded by MIT alumni Ben Glass and Adam Rein in 2010.
The high-altitude wind power sector is gaining momentum with a number of innovative projects attracting investment from some pretty powerful energy partners. A more in depth summary of the various companies and their high-altitude wind power devices can be found by reading this article.