While you might not notice it immediately, this family’s private summer cabin was designed to mimic a series of tents.
Perched on a hill with stunning views of New Zealand’s Buckleton Bay, the retreat’s separate sleeping areas are connected to a central space–the heart of the base camp. Here, groups can gather to cook, eat, and lounge under a soaring white roof. Tethered by red masts, this horizontal plane rises toward the sea, while the deep overhang provides shade, much like a tent’s awning.
Low-maintenance materials (concrete, wood, and glass) make the transition from inside to out. The concrete terrace wraps around the full perimeter of the house, and encircles a brick fireplace.
In the summer, residents can slide open the glass walls to let in the sea breeze and take in views of the bay.
Ten years ago, kiteboarding pioneer Don Montague hatched a plan to become the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe. His idea was to use a 65-foot catamaran, cabled to a large parafoil, that would fly some 250 feet in the air. Essentially, he would supersize the typical kiteboard rig. A few months into the project, he gave a preview to a couple of kitesurfing friends, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
“I was showing them how much power was actually available at higher altitudes, and I said, ‘Look, I can even generate electricity,’ ” says Montague, who had worked with a Dutch astronaut to build a kite-power prototype. “They said, ‘Don, don’t waste your time sailing around the world. Let’s save the world.’ ”
So Montague and his partners set about designing a wind turbine that would be held aloft like a kite but use small propellers to generate electricity. Montague named the new endeavor Makani. At the outset, Google invested $15 million in the effort. Last May, Makani was sold outright to Google X—the R&D lab that created Google Glass—for an undisclosed amount. And this summer, backed by the company’s enormous resources, Makani began building a second-generation, 600-kilowatt wind turbine, which could one day generate enough electricity to power 300 homes—as many as the largest modern land-based turbines.
Makani’s big idea rests on a simple concept: wind gets stronger—and more dependable—the higher you go. Dozens of companies around the world are working on design formulas based on this principle, everything from a propeller system that stays aloft with helium, like a blimp, to a large drone-like quadcopter with spinning blades that produce energy.
One of the primary hurdles in technology races like this is capital, since most investors consider the odds of failure too great. But with Google’s deep pockets, Makani is by far the most likely outfit to usher in a new era of wind power. “We are able to go faster, and we have a larger appetite for risk,” says Damon Vander Lind, lead engineer at Makani. “Perhaps we will fail. But if we succeed, the value dwarfs all the potential failures.”
Some alternative-power advocates are ambivalent about Google leading the way to a renewable-energy future, but the wind sector needs all the help it can get. Proponents like to boast that the resource could supply the U.S. with 20 percent of its electricity needs, yet the industry has foundered in recent years, beset by political and logistical woes. A big part of the problem is that current land-based designs are expensive to build and clunky to transport. That’s where Montague’s high-flying concept comes in.
“While classic turbines are facing physical and economic limits, airborne wind energy shows interesting potential,” says Roland Schmehl, a professor at the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology, who’s working on an electricity-generating inflatable wing called Kite Power.
Makani is currently testing a 20-kilowatt airplane-inspired turbine, which circles in the air like a parafoil. Made with 27-foot-wide carbon-fiber wings, it can reach heights of up to 1,300 feet, compared with a maximum 500 feet for land-based turbines. When the wind isn’t strong enough to keep the wing aloft, a docking station reels it in. Like those on the ground, airborne models would likely be combined into groups of dozens or even hundreds. To maximize -potential power, Makani’s turbines would need to fly at a minimum of 500 feet—which could require amending current FAA regulations.
As for Montague, after the Google X acquisition, he bowed out of the company and got back to building that kite-powered catamaran to sail around the world. He’s confident Makani will be the first to market with a commercially viable airborne wind turbine, which he says is still at least five years out.
“Is it a race? It doesn’t really matter who’s first,” Montague says. “If anyone is in production in five years, then we all win.”
By now, you've likely seen the photos. On the afternoon of July 3, a train paralleling Montana’s Clark Fork River derailed at Atherton Gorge, sending payloads of soybeans, denatured alcohol (not for drinking, this is the stuff used in fuel), and Boeing plane parts into the water—and into view of stunned outdoor enthusiasts.
While photographs of the failure made waves in international news, the accident was actually more spectacle than disaster. “Since the denatured alcohol and soybeans were contained, the damage is very temporary,” Pat Saffel, fisheries manager of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks told Outside. “There was really no impact.”
The things that really hurt the Clark Fork, and American rivers at large, aren’t as conspicuous or visible as fuselages—they tend to be subtler, come on more gradually, and cause long term damage. Of the more-than 500,000 miles of rivers analyzed in the 2004 National Water Quality Inventory, the USEPA found that 44 percent of them were impaired.
For the most part, the biggest threats to rivers are results of our attempts to control them. America’s dams, constructed to retain water and create energy, damage downstream ecosystems, disrupt the flow of nutrient-rich silt, are aging, and have little water to hold back. As a result of damming and diversion—for agricultural, municipal, and residential use—some of the largest rivers in the world are running dry, requiring intensive cooperation between countries to maintain any flow at all.
We can damage waterways when we put them to use, but rivers get caught in the crossfire when we forget to include them in our plans, too. Fertilizer runoff is the leading source of water quality damage. The way watersheds are graded, this pollution, as well as stormwater runoff from cities, inevitably ends up in rivers and streams.
Groups like American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, and Wild Earth Guardians—along with other watershed groups and the USEPA—spend lots of time and money restoring (or at least improving) rivers, but all it takes is one spill to send them right back to bad places.
“From our perspective, this is a wake up call,” said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “As disturbing as this is, imagine if it’d been tankers full of crude oil, which are increasingly shipped through Missoula. We we lucky in this case that it was just airplane parts.”