High-Altitude Wind Turbines Take Flight

Potential to produce enough energy to power the world

    Photo: Getty Images

Let's go fly a… wind turbine? Like kites, high-altitude wind turbines float in the air while tethered to the ground. What makes these airborne wind energy (AWE) devices different from a kite? They have the potential to generate huge amounts of electricity, according to a study led by the University of Delaware. 

AWE devices convert kinetic energy from wind into electricity. Researchers have pinpointed where in the atmosphere they might best be used. If successful, the turbines will produce several terawatts of electric power a year, according to Phys.org. 

For some perspective, that's enough power to more than meet worldwide demands. Phys.org continues:

Unlike their land-based and offshore counterparts, airborne turbines can reach extreme heights where wind speeds are very fast. They also use less-expensive materials, have fewer visual and audible impacts, and can be adjusted to the precise level at which winds are quickest at any given time. The systems are intended for use in special airspace to avoid interfering with airplanes, and they are not to be deployed during severe weather.

Companies vying for the best commercial patent are planning to get their AWEs up to three kilometers in the sky. Researchers say some of the best places for high-altitude wind farms include the North American Great Plains, areas over the ocean near the equator called Hadley cells, and offshore near the Horn of Africa.

"These areas, which we call 'wind speed maxima,' form much more often and in more regions than we thought," says Cristina Archer, the study's lead author and associate professor at UD's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. "That was a surprise."

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