Wind turbines suffer from inconsistency due to the varying levels of wind that blow at ground level. Wind in the upper atmosphere blows with much more power and more consistently. In order to exploit this more constant energy source many companies have been trying to develop ways of positioning turbines at high altitude.
Building taller wind turbines is not effective, due to the engineering difficulties, the manufacturing, transport, and construction of the tower, and the maintenance and repairs. The costs would be far too high. Instead companies are looking for ways of keeping the turbines in the sky, without significant, ground based support structures.
One company has a solution, and over the winter a prototype, 35-foot helium blimp wind turbine was tested by Altaeros in the skies above Limestone, Maine. The helium blimp is shaped like a doughnut, with a Skystream model turbine from Southwest Windpower positioned in the hole.
The air borne wind turbine was sent up to 350ft, and as anticipated it produced more than twice the power of a conventional, ground based wind turbine. Initially the blimp was intended to be sent up to 2000ft, but after their trial, and other tests, they have found that 1000ft is sufficient. Added to the increased power production, Altaeros also predict that the electricity will be nearly 65 percent cheaper than similar traditional turbines.
The blimp has been made small, so that it can be loaded onto a trailer for easy transportation. Altaeros believe that it could benefit remote military facilities to reduce their reliance on diesel generators, and remote industrial facilities such as oil and gas drilling sites, hence the interest of ConocoPhillips. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has also donated funding into the project, believing that the turbine could provide low cost, clean power in remote rural areas, which don’t have the wind conditions to install conventional wind turbines on the ground. As the USDA noted, “85 percent of rural communities cannot utilize wind power today due to community concerns or poor wind resources at ground level that make projects uneconomical.”
Two problems now remain, one is to test the durability of the blimp and turbine under maximum wind speeds, the other is to solve the helium supply issue. Helium is a very rare element on Earth, and cannot yet be artificially produced in large quantities. It occurs in very small proportions in natural gas, but despite the current US natural gas boom, it is still in very short supply.
By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com
James Burgess studied Business Management at the University of Nottingham. He has worked in property development, chartered surveying, marketing, law, and accounts. He has also…