Not far from where Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first airplane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Rob Creighton and his partners at a start-up company called Windlift are testing a contraption designed to capture high-altitude wind energy and turn it into electricity for off-the-grid users.
Potential customers include the U.S. military, chic eco-resorts in remote locations and poor people in the global south in desperate need of power.
Creighton, an 36-year-old MBA who grew up in Minnesota, tests his machines in the Outer Banks for the same reason as the Wright brothers did: There’s lots of wind there. His company is one of several — others include Google-backed Makani Power, Joby Energy and KiteGen– working in a relatively obscure but promising corner of the renewable energy business. They are deploying different technologies and business strategies, but all are driven by the fact that winds increase in power and consistency as you get higher above the ground. (If you are a scientist or engineer and want to know more, here is a link to a 77-page PDF presentation that includes such topics as “dancing kites”!)
I met Rob last week at a conference on energy and climate organized by the Center for Sustainable Enterprise at the Kenan-Flager business school at the University of North Carolina. Turns out that his obsession with kites goes back to his boyhood, when he enjoyed canoeing in the Boundary Waters; to help speed things up, he’d rig a makeshift kite to his canoe.
His first experiment getting electricity from a kite wasn’t much more sophisticated. As an MBA student at the University of Wisconsin, he put together a swing set, rock salt, a hockey stick and an three-meter airfoil and generated mechanical energy, lifting 200 lbs of salt. Don’t laugh. Windlift, which is based in Durham, N.C., last year secured a grant of about $1 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to research, develop, test and build prototypes of its Airborne Wind Energy (AWE) system.
“They are really excited about our technology,” Creighton says, “because they have a huge problem shipping fuel to remote locations.” Using diesel fuel to power military installations requires long, complex and dangerous supply lines. “I like to think that our product could save lives.”
Creighton never expected to become a military contractor. He got interested in energy for off-the-grid locations after spending a semester abroad in India as a Wisconsin undergrad, where he was overwhelmed by the poverty. “I’ve always been fascinated by the process of development,” he told me. “Where does wealth come from?” It was clear to him the economic development and the availability of energy went hand-in-hand. Later, he studied the idea of peak oil and investigated ways to produce energy with the fewest inputs and the lowest environmental impact. That led him to airborne wind.
He tried at first to sell the idea that nonprofit groups that want to stimulate economic growth in poor countries, but they typically don’t fund the development of new technology. Next he thought about the oil industry with its offshore platforms. He accosted the CEO of Halliburton at an alumni function at Wisconsin. To start a company, he says, “You need to be aggressive and you need to be, maybe, not socially acceptable and maybe a little crazy.”
The Windlift AWE engine includes several key components, Rob explains: A 40-square meter airfoil that is tethered to earth by four ultra-strong 150-meter tethers, a power mechanism on the ground that uses the tension in the tethers to act as a regenerative brake (like on the Prius) which charges batteries, and sophisticated electronic controls to permit fully automated operations. The machine operates in cycles, generating electricity as the kites fly away from the ground. Windlift says it will deliver a system rated at 12 KW peak power to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, by the end of 2010 for more testing.
“The core technology, we know it works,” Creighton says. The question is, can high altitude wind be harnessed at an affordable price?
Windlift is a small company with just three full-time employees. Some competitors have more. Makani has gotten a lot of ink because of its ties to Google. Joby Energy was founded by JoeBen Bevirt, an enterpreneur who co-founded Velocity11, a lab equipment firm, and sold it to Agilent. Delft University in the Netherlands has established a center to study high-altitude wind.
Last year, the nascent industry came together for the first time at a High Altitude Wind Power Conference in Chico, CA. “Different people still have their own pet theories and ideas,” Creighton says, “but there’s now heavy duty computational modeling going on that’s going to help all of us.”
Before long, we should know a lot more about whether affordable wind power will get off the ground–or whether all this is just pie in the sky.