Altaeros wind blimp nears take-off

US high-altitude wind power developer Altaeros Energies is moving toward launch of a flagship commercial unit in Alaska, marking the first long-term demonstration of an airborne turbine.

The 30kW version of the MIT-spinoff’s Buoyant Airborne Turbine (Bat), an open-centred blimp housing a three-bladed rotor, will be tethered some  300 metres in the air at a site near Fairbanks, as part of $1.3m testing project backed by the Alaska Energy Authority’s Emerging Energy Technology Fund.

The 18.3-metre diameter Bat will be tested over the next 18 months to demonstrate full power production and autonomous operations – including deploying and reeling in the helium-filled device.

“At these heights, our Bat turbine generates a breakthrough in consistent, low-cost energy for the remote power and microgrid market,” claimed Altaeros co-founder Adam Rein. The turbine is expected to generate enough energy to power more than a dozen homes.

The design of the Bat – which can be transported and setup without large cranes, towers, or underground foundations needed by conventional wind turbines – is adapted from aerostats, historically used to lift heavy communications equipment into the air.

“Aerostats are rated to survive hurricane-level winds and have safety features that ensure a slow descent to the ground,” said Rein. Last year Boston-based Altaeros successfully tested a Bat prototype in 70km/h winds at a height of 150 metres at its test site in Maine.

“[The prototype’s] “stable airborne operation [in high velocity turbulent winds] was the key result of these tests.” he adds. Fully reeled out, the commercial-scale Bat in Alaska will operate in winds some 84 metres above the largest wind turbine yet built, the Vestas V164-8.0-MW, which has a hub height of  about 140 metres and blade tips that stretch more than 220 metres.

RNT Associates, owned by former Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata, recently invested an undisclosed amount into Altaeros.

The Fairbanks pilot is expected to run at an “at least 50%” capacity factor. Altaeros is currently progressing designs for commercial units at 100kW and 200kW capacity.

The high-altitude wind sector got some industrial traction last year with the acquisition by Google of US outfit Makani Power.

In Europe, 3M is funding airborne wind energy company Nature Technology Systems and DSM Venturing is backing SkySails, both in Germany, while KLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ has invested in compatirot Ampyx Power, and Sabic Ventures’ is part-funding Italy’s KiteGen.