They have captured the imagination of children, writers and even the renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci. But beyond the fun they bring, what practical purpose do kites serve?

A handful of entrepreneurs believe they have the answer. Kites, they say, could harness untapped winds high above the earth. They could pull cables to generate electricity at a lower cost than wind turbines. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has said there is a chance – if only a one in 10 chance – that kite technology could provide a "magic solution" to some of the world’s energy needs.

These are ambitious claims. But the technology has moved a step closer to commercialisation after Kite Power Systems (KPS), a British start-up founded in 2011, received a joint £5 million investment from three energy firms, including Shell. The start-up’s plan is to build one of the world's first kite power stations using technology it believes could generate hundreds of megawatts of energy by 2030.

The technology is simple. Two kites are tethered to a spool. As they soar at speeds of around 100 miles per hour in figures of eight, they pull cables which turn the drum, rather like an unrolling spool of thread. This generates electricity. As one kite descends, the other rises, so electricity is generated continually.

Building at scale

Each kite system is capable of generating around 500 kilowatts of energy, enough to supply electricity to around 430 homes for a year. The technology will be tested on a former RAF training base in south-west Scotland from 2017.

Ultimately KPS envisages hundreds of devices operating “like an offshore windfarm” both on land and at sea, according to its founder Bill Hampton.

“My vision is to build a system that is deployable anywhere in the world,” says the former hydraulics engineer. “There are many regions that are unable to use wind turbines because of weather conditions or the fact that the sea is too deep.”

Securing funding

Their ambition has impressed Shell Technology Ventures (STV), Shell’s corporate venturing arm, which alongside German energy company E.On and US-based oil services firm Schlumberger, has made the £5 million investment. KPS first appeared on Shell’s radar through its GameChanger programme, which provides technical and financial support to unproven ideas in their early stages of conception.

“From our first encounter we could see a passion in KPS to take decades-old kite technology and adapt it for power generation,” recalls Marian Marino, GameChanger’s General Manager. “That’s why we worked alongside them for a couple of years, helping to assemble the right skills and forge a path to make the technology deployable.”

“Over time, KPS has convinced me that its high-altitude kite power solution has disruptive potential for the wind industry,” says Geert van de Wouw, the STV Managing Director. “It is an interesting contribution to renewable energy generation and a good fit to explore through Shell’s New Energies business.”

Other airborne projects

The investment comes months after a Dutch firm, E-Kite, was awarded for a proposal on how kite power could contribute to tackling climate change. The company won the renewables category at Energy Fest, a start-up pitching competition in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, co-sponsored by Shell.

Makani Power, a US start-up, is also exploring a version of kite technology and has secured funding from the US Department of Energy and Google’s research and development arm, Google X.

But with relative modest investments so far, can kite power secure the stronger funding and backing it needs to make a real difference? E-Kite founder Max ter Horst is optimistic. “Kite power reduces the cost of wind power so far, that in a few years from now you won’t need subsidies to profitably generate wind energy,” he says. “Our belief is that energy is only truly sustainable if it’s financially sustainable.”

 

By Kunal Dutta

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