Sustainable Energy

Generating power, 600m up in the air

Anmar Frangoul | Special to

Our landscapes have changed drastically over the past few decades thanks to the advent of the wind turbine. Large chunks of the countryside are now taken up by giant windmills generating power – sometimes in the face of protests. So would a portable wind turbine hovering 600 meters in the air be an alternative to the array?

Wind is becoming an increasingly important part of our planet's energy mix. The European Wind Energy Agency estimates that by 2050 735 gigawatts of wind power could be installed in the EU, with wind meeting 50 percent of the European Union's electricity demand.

Altaeros Energies

In the United States, one company is looking to harness the potential of wind with an innovative, striking take on the wind turbine. Altaeros Energies' Buoyant Airborne Turbine (BAT) is a mobile wind turbine that operates at up to 600 metres in order to take advantage of, "strong, consistent winds beyond the reach of traditional towers."

"Essentially what we're doing is getting rid of the tower and the foundation and replacing it with this lighter-than-air lifting platform, tether and ground station system," Ben Glass, CEO and CTO of Altaeros Energies, told CNBC in a phone interview.

The BAT is comprised of four parts: a shell filled with helium, a lightweight three blade turbine, lightweight tethers and a portable ground station. Altaeros say it can withstand winds over 100 miles per hour.

"The turbine itself is very similar," Glass added, before going on to say, "It's really just the tower and the foundation that we're replacing… because there's a limitation to how high you can get with a tower, our goal is to kind of bypass that limitation and use this lighter than air lifting platform to reach much higher than we would with a tower."

Founded in 2010 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Altaeros has received funding from a range of organisations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Energy Commission.

The potential energy that the BAT can generate is, according to Altaeros, more than double that of, "similarly rated tower-mounted wind turbines."

"Wind speeds increase as you get higher up off the ground, and that's something that, even just from flying a kite, a lot of people have an intuitive sense of," Glass said.

"What is perhaps less intuitive is that as the wind speed increases, the power in the wind increases very quickly," he added.

Altaeros say that because the BAT does not require a tower, crane or cement foundation, installation and transport costs are cut by up to 90 percent. This, "combined with significant increases in energy output, and flexible deployment options," will help to reduce energy costs for customers.

Glass said that the aim was to transition from research and development to product development, with the aim of deploying the first commercial-scale systems at the start of 2016.

"There's a whole bunch of different applications for it," Glass said. "One of the most exciting ones is if you look at rural areas – especially in developing markets – [where] the incumbent sources of electricity are very expensive, very dirty diesel generators."

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