The wind industry has gone to great lengths over the years to snap up the best properties for its farms, often looking to remote swaths of prairie or distant mountain ridges to maximize energy production and minimize community opposition.
Now, it is reaching for the sky.
With new technology allowing developers to build taller machines spinning longer blades, the industry has been able to produce more power at lower cost by capturing the faster winds that blow at higher elevations. This has opened up new territories, in places like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, where the price of power from turbines built 300 to 400 feet above the ground can now compete with conventional sources like coal.
And efforts to capture the wind could go even higher. In perhaps the most extreme example, a start-up called Altaeros Energies is preparing to introduce its first commercial pilot of an airborne wind turbine in Alaska.
Known as the BAT — or Buoyant Airborne Turbine — the enormous, white helium-filled doughnut surrounding a rotor will float about 1,000 feet in the air and feed enough electricity to power more than a dozen homes through one of the cables tethering it to the ground.
But the skyward expansion has already taken flight throughout the wind industry, transforming once-shunned parts of the Midwest into wind powerhouses.
Six years ago there, the wind speeds at 200 feet were not strong enough to make wind development make sense, said Elizabeth Salerno, chief economist and director of industry data and analysis at the American Wind Energy Association, the industry’s main trade group. But as turbine hubs — which sit atop the towers — have risen above 200 feet and included longer blades, that has changed.
Prices have fallen so low — in some cases to about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour — that utilities have been increasing the amount of wind energy they want to buy through long-term contracts, with regulators saying it is their cheapest option. At the same time, though, the push has spurred some opposition in these new areas from residents who object to the tall, industrial wind turbines.
High cost, high reward
In Alaska — as in other remote regions, representing a multibillion-dollar market Altaeros hopes to tap — energy costs run so high that even a promising but largely unproven technology is cost-effective, officials say.
“Particularly for Alaska, eliminating the costs that are associated with power installation,” said Alan Baldivieso, program manager for hydrokinetics, geothermal and emerging energy at the Alaska Energy Authority, “makes this type of deployment very attractive.”
The authority awarded Altaeros a $1.3 million grant from its Emerging Energy Technology Fund to support testing the equipment over 18 months with the idea of expanding its use.
Ben Glass, chief executive of Altaeros, said he expected the company to be able to offer power at about 18 cents per kilowatt-hour, far too high for most conventional markets but still well below the 35 cents to nearly $1 a kilowatt-hour often paid in remote areas of Alaska.
Serving markets like that could help the company establish its business and lower costs to eventually compete for larger-scale projects.
Glass started the company in 2010 along with Adam Rein (and another partner who has since left) as the two were completing graduate programs at MIT. Glass, whose father had been a pilot in the Israeli Air Force, planned to pursue rocket science but strayed from that path after an internship at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, the summer before his senior year.
“I realized that to be a rocket scientist you kind of had to … have a rocket company or you were just going to be designing some little widget part of the rocket,” he said.
He ended up designing an array of turbines for his senior project and putting his engineering skills to use on the airborne machine.
Borrowing from the technology of blimps, the Altaeros system is able to adjust the turbine’s height and alignment in response to changing winds to maximize power production.
The company has raised more than $1 million in the past two years from angel investors and some state governments as well as the federal government, including the Energy and Agriculture departments. The technology could help provide power after natural disasters.
In the long term, executives say they hope to expand into the offshore market, particularly places like the Pacific Coast, where officials recently approved plans to test floating turbine platforms.