Intelligent Energy

A wind turbine that floats high in the sky

Posting in Design

ConocoPhillips awarded its top energy prize to designers of a helium-filled contraption that lifts a turbine up to 2,000 feet into the air.

Buildings  and trees can disrupt the wind, which is a problem for folks hoping to harvest the renewable energy source. To date, the solution has been to build wind turbines on ever higher towers, an expensive endeavor that has environmental and NIMBY implications. But Ben Glass and Adam Rein of Altaeros Energies have come up with a turbine designed to fly high in the sky, where the wind is stronger and more consistent.

This week, the pair were awarded the ConocoPhillips 2011 Energy Prize, a joint initiative between the oil and gas company and Penn State created to recognize new ideas and original, actionable solutions to improve the way the U.S. develops and uses energy.  Glass, CEO of Altaeros Energies and inventor of the turbine, and Rein, the company's co-founder, received a total of $125,000 to further the development of their concept officially called the Aerostat Platform for Rapid Deployment Airborne Wind Turbine. Alain Goubau also is co-founder.

How it works

The turbine's design is adapted from aerostats -- those tethered unmanned blimps often used by the military to carry sensors and instruments for long periods of time. A helium-filled shroud (which sort of looks like a doughnut) lifts a horizontal-axis turbine up to 2,000 feet into the air. The contraption is used to concentrate stronger winds into the blades of the turbine. Power is sent down to the ground via a conductive tether that holds the floating turbine at the proper altitude.

The floating turbine can be transported within a single shipping container and fully operational within a day. Meaning, the device could be particularly useful in remote areas that need emergency power supplies. And because the floating turbines are sent high into the sky, the devices could be effective power sources in rural communities that have poor "ground level" wind sources.

Rein told me in an email the company plans to market the turbine to owners of off-grid generators to produce power for about 65 percent less than it costs to transport out the diesel fuel for the generators. They have not set a retail price as the company is still developing the product, Rein said.

Photo: Altaeros Energies

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure