​Flying wind turbines make their first trip offshore in Norway

Image: Makani

A carbon-fiber kite tethered to a buoy floating in waters 220 meters (761 feet) deep took flight in a test to prove that the future of offshore wind power might fly through the air.

The kite, owned by the Alphabet Inc.-subsidiary Makani and backed by Royal Dutch Shell Plc, completed its first demonstration about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) off the coast of Norway in the North Sea.

Makani grew as part of an Alphabet division that develops experimental new technologies. Earlier this year, it partnered with Shell and is one of a handful of companies that work to develop kite-like wind turbines. The machines are meant to tap into more reliable wind currents at higher altitudes, maybe up to 500 meters (1,640 feet).

The device looks like a sleek airplane, about 26 meters across, with eight rotors attached to it that spin in the wind to generate electricity. It’s secured by a cable to a buoy and makes a loop as it flies. The advantage is that it requires less steel and concrete to install than a traditional offshore wind turbine, some of which are fixed by structures as large as skyscrapers.

Just moving tests of the kite to the water from land marked an accomplishment for the developers, since the salty sea air corrodes materials.

“The tests we conducted last week proved that it works,” Fort Felker, Makani’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. “That’s the giant step forward. Now we’ll come back to adapt the systems for the overall marine environment that we’ll want to commercialize in.”

Ultimately, Makani wants its technology to be deployed to provide electricity for hundreds of millions of people in what it sees as an untapped market. Many places aren’t suitable for conventional offshore wind turbines because the water is too deep.

Floating platforms for conventional turbines do exist, but Makani said its technology would be about a fraction of the cost of those options. Other applications could be to power floating offshore oil platforms or for small island nations that currently rely on diesel generators.

Large-scale generation is at least five to 10 years away for any of the companies working on airborne wind power, according to BNEF. The technology is still in the early stages of testing. Smaller-scale applications could come much sooner, perhaps in one to three years. Those may include units that provide power far from traditional grids or for disaster relief.

“It’s a big step forward, but Makani has a lot more work to do before commercialization,” said BNEF wind analyst Rachel Shifman. “The next thing to look out for will be proof of continuous operation and scaling up to bigger machines for utility operations.”

Next summer, Makani will conduct another test in Norway where it will operate for a longer period in more kinds of weather -- with a direct link to the grid. In the meantime, the developers plan to explore additional partnerships and improve on methods for servicing the kites as well as increase the automation of monitoring the devices.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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