A typical wind power turbine is massive, and designs are getting bigger all the time: Earlier this year, a British company released plans for a new turbine with blades the length of a football field. But a few outlying experts in the wind industry think the giant structures are a waste of materials. Ampyx Power, based in the windmill-pioneering country of the Netherlands, is capturing the same amount of energy with nothing but a small glider plane tethered to a generator.
"We're replacing tons of steel and concrete," said Wolbert Allaart, the startup’s managing director, and he means "tons" very literally—an average wind turbine can weigh around 120 metric tons, while the glider system weighs in at a measly 0.4 tons. "It's a huge materials reduction, and we can produce the same amount of power. That obviously has an effect on cost as well."
The company plans to bring their design to the market in 2015, and they believe it could produce energy more cheaply than other renewables, and even cheaper than coal-powered systems. "The whole reason why we're doing this is because we think we can get the cost of a kilowatt-hour well below the price of coal," Allaart said. Material costs for the system are about 90% less than a regular wind turbine.
The glider is also cheaper because of how it runs. As it flies automatically in figure-eights, the glider pulls on a thin, ultra-strong cable, and the generator converts the movement to electricity. Since it isn’t attached to a tower, it can soar nearly 2,000 feet in the air, catching stronger winds that produce about eight times more energy than the lower-altitude breezes that reach a normal wind turbine.
The technology is similar to a glider from California-based Makani Power, though Ampyx is a little scrappier. Makani was acquired by Google earlier this year, while Ampyx ran a crowdfunding campaign. There are differences in the technology—Makani has generators on the wing of its planes, which Ampyx thinks this adds weight and makes it less efficient. But Allaart says there’s more than enough room for both companies, since they have huge dreams of the technology eventually replacing coal all over the world.
Because the planes are so efficient, places that might not have worked for wind power in the past—like forests, where trees catch and redirect the wind—could be a fit for the system, so the market is wide open. One place Ampyx plans to start is its home turf.
"In Holland, where we're based, we now have a 4.3 billion Euro subsidy scheme for offshore wind," Allaart says. "People are starting to wonder already, if we have a technology being developed in our own country that could provide offshore wind at more or less competitive price with coal, why on Earth are we still subsidizing this so heavily? How fast this grows will depend on political will."