Harnessing the potential of high altitude wind power

February 15, 2010 8:10:01 PM PST
Six miles up in the air lies a vast amount of energy that could solve all our power problems, assuming we can tap into it. Now one local company thinks it has found a way to get at some of it.

At the Berkeley Marina, kites fly hundreds of feet in the air. It is the wind that keeps them flying. But what if it was possible to use that same wind to power your home? That is just what Moffett Field-based Magenn is counting on.

"We produce an airship that is lighter than air that rotates from the wind to create wind energy," Pierre Rivard of Magenn said.

The sails on an enormous inflatable turbine lined with magnets capture the wind, causing the turbine to spin. That spinning generates electricity.

"We essentially have a paddle boat that rotates in the air," Magenn said.

The goal is to suspend the lighter-than-air turbines 1,000 feet in the air.

"At 1000 feet, you typically have constant stronger winds in most locations around the world," he said.

One of those turbines could power 10 homes. That could be extremely useful to the 1.6 billion people without power in remote parts of the world. Because the Magenn turbines are so light, they could also provide wireless phone equipment.

"Typically our device would be a perfect solution to bring electricity and Internet communications to these villages around the world, Magenn said.

The company says the device could also be useful in bringing power quickly to areas devastated by natural disasters.

But what if someone could put a turbine tens of thousands of feet into the air where there is a nearly endless supply of wind. That is where the high winds of the jet stream blow nearly all of the time. Jet streams circle the globe, and while they may shift slightly, they are relatively constant in many places, providing the potentially steady source of power.

"The jet streams represent the most concentrated renewable energy available on Earth," Ken Caldeira, professor at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University, said.

Caldeira was part of a team that studied those high altitude winds. They found that there is roughly 100 times more energy in those winds than is used in all of modern civilization.

"If we could just tap into 1 percent of the energy in high altitude winds, that would be enough to power all of civilization," he said.

It is not without its challenges.

"The jet streams are maybe something like six miles above our head; we think nothing of going horizontally and getting wind power from a wind turbine six miles away," Caldeira said.

But first the technology will have to be developed.

"You need to have something flying up there, and flying stuff in the sky is not that easy," he said.

Then you will have to get that power back to ground, and not many people would be happy with a six-mile cable hanging over their house.

Still, Caldiera is confident that these challenges can be eventually overcome.

"There are a number of companies now investing in this area and trying to extract this energy," he said. "I think it's just a question of time before somebody will be successful and we'll be getting power in this way."

We will get a chance to see one of Magenn's air turbines sailing over the South Bay in the near future. They expect to test one at Moffett Field and hope to have something ready for the marketplace by the end of the year.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel