Wind Energy Generation Using Kites
A kite is a wonderful and innovative invention. It’s fun to play, and as a kid, I would always stare in astonishment whenever one takes into the skies.
There are a few things that we have unconsciously learned from playing with kites. First, is that we can make almost anything afloat given the proper materials, form, and weight distribution. Second, is that we can control these small crafts efficiently even when just using a simple string. But what we may have not learned from playing with kites however is that kites actually have the potential to become highly efficient collectors of wind energy.
Earth’s Fast Wind Reservoir
One very basic fact that gives us a clue that kites can harness wind energy like wind turbines is that the wind is usually faster at higher altitudes. In fact, it was such a fundamental idea, that using kites to harness wind energy was already proposed as early as the 19th century, with the first concept of using the collected wind energy for electricity being conceived during the mid-1900′s.
Today, the field of harnessing wind power at high altitudes is aptly called as High Altitude Wind Power (HAWP) Generation. One basic configuration to harness this energy would be to set up a specially made kite that would catch the wind. It would transfer the wind kinetic energy to a set of cables that tether it, and then the tethers would then use the energy to turn a connected wheel in ground, finally creating electric energy for a generator. Flying these heavy kites all day is sure to be tiring for a human individual, so its flight course and stability maintenance would simply be monitored by a computer.
The jet streams at the upper atmosphere travel much, much faster than mid-troposphere winds, and there had been a few proposals to harness wind energy at these spots. But while these may provide us with greater power for our wind energy kites, researchers don’t really recommend doing this, as it may permanently alter global wind air flow (subsequently altering our world’s climate cycles). The wind energy kite could still be placed at an altitude higher than 15-20 km however, as long as it would not cross paths with a jet stream.
The Airborne Wind Turbine
There are currently many airborne wind turbine projects held by different independent organizations and institutions. They may have varied ideas, but the basic goal of harnessing the energy of high altitude winds is still the same in all of them.
KiteGen for instance, is a special type of airborne wind turbine that uses the vertical axis rotation made by the “pulling” (centripetal) force of the kite to generate energy. The idea for this wind energy kite was conceived by the Italian researcher Massimo Ippolito, who was inspired by the tremendous wind forces that even regular kites are able to harness. The special feature of the KiteGen is that by using only 20 or so kites (two at each installation), it can already generate about 1 gigawatts of energy, equivalent to a medium size nuclear power plant, but with installation costs that are much, much lower.
Makani Power, a company built by inventor Saul Griffith uses a different kind of “kite” to harness high altitude winds. These are technically aerodynamic wings, but they are controlled from the ground much in the same way as a kite. Unlike KiteGen however, the wind turbines are directly installed to the kite itself, and the tether is actually a thick cable that is used to transfer the generated energy down to a “receiving station”. Saul Griffith explains that the technology is scalable, and can go from small paper plane-sized kites for mobile devices, to very large Hughes H-4 Hercules-like wingspans for powering large portions of towns and cities.
Airborne wind turbines may yet have another bonus advantage other than improved energy generation. Since we are tapping into high altitude wind energy, we might ultimately have to remove the constant need to survey the area if it is worthy of a wind energy system installation. Of course, an installation might still be impossible if wind speeds a really, really low for a certain area.
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