Airborne wind energy (AWE) uses kites, tethered drones or turbines in balloons to make electricity, accessing more consistent, stronger winds above those reached by wind turbines on land. The possibilities have attracted the interest of developers and, as a result, an estimated 50 small enterprises around the world are investigating kite power, some of them receiving backing from large interests.

The motive power comes from harnessing the constant pull on the airborne sail, and is greater because of the higher wind velocities available at altitude. It is cheaper to install, as no tower or foundation need be constructed, is less visible and may even be used as a mobile generator. Initial indications suggest that 10kW modules would be the likely scale of the prototypes. The advantages of initial cost and relative invisibility make AWE suitable for onshore or offshore use, but the relative ease with which it could be used at deepwater locations suggests that it is a natural fit for deployment in offshore arrays.

Business consultancy IDTechEx believes the potential market could be as much as €3.0 billion ($3.3 billion). The company’s recently published market assessment, ‘Airborne Wind Energy (AWE) 2017–2027’, states that “four developers plan to commercialise their AWE systems in the next four years, and others promise sales later. Several will succeed: the market may grow in a similar way to traditional wind turbines.” According to the report, there is a good chance that AWE will compete with conventional wind power on total cost of ownership but also by being part of the green alternative to diesel gensets. Favoured markets alongside solar power would include micro-grids, electric car charging stations and remote communities, especially where grid compatibility is not an issue.

The report says: “AWE is disruptive because it could be much less expensive and intrusive than the traditional wind turbine. Indeed, it is capable of much more with its unique low capital cost and easy transportability. AWE has moved from a hobbyist curiosity to attracting around $200 million initial investment from giants Google, E.ON, Shell, Schlumberger, Tata, Softbank and others.”

Airborne investment

E.ON is one of the companies establishing a position as a frontrunner and early adopter in airborne wind energy. The company has committed to invest in the development, and, if successful, construction and operation of a demonstration site in County Mayo in Ireland. In parallel, E.ON has entered into a collaboration agreement with Dutch-based company Ampyx Power as its first user. Ampyx has been working on its system for five years. The development opens up new possibilities for collaboration with a multitude of companies pioneering airborne wind power generation technology. It could also provide a platform for working with research and government institutes.

Airborne wind technology harvests wind energy by using a fixed wing or sail at altitudes of up to 450m. In addition to its capex advantage, the technology is easier to deploy in the deeper waters surrounding countries such as Portugal, Japan and the US. The investment marks E.ON’s second major commitment in the AWE domain. In 2016, it invested in the Scottishbased start-up Kite Power Systems.

“Airborne wind supports one of our overall targets to drive down cost for renewable energy,” says Anja-Isabel Dotzenrath, CEO of E.ON Climate and Renewables. “In addition to making airborne wind competitive to conventional wind power, we would like to work with authorities and legislators to pave the way for introducing this exciting technology and eventually make it eligible to participate in tendering processes.”

Kite power

Kite Power Systems has secured £5.0 million ($6.8 million) of new investment from E.ON, Schlumberger and Shell Technology Ventures. The investment will support KPS’s plans to deploy a 500kW onshore power system at West Freugh in south-west Scotland in 2017. This will lead to a planned onshore demonstration array of multiple 500kW systems within the next three to four years. KPS then intends to develop a 3MW onshore system at West Freugh as a prelude to deploying a similar-sized power system in offshore waters.

Paul Jones, chief financial officer at KPS, says, “The backing of these companies will accelerate KPS’s commercial development plans towards deploying lower cost, deepwater offshore wind energy on a global scale.” KPS was established in 2011 and has invested more than £3 million in technology development, with financial support coming from the UK Government, Shell’s GameChanger programme and private investors.