Kite power: no longer a flight of fancy?
Entrepreneurs believe kites offer untapped opportunities to harness winds high above the earth and generate electricity at a lower cost than wind turbines. Can their technology take off?
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 closer to commercialisation after Kite Power Systems (KPS), a British start-up, received a joint £5 million investment from three energy firms in 2016, including Shell.
The start-up’s plan is to build one of the world's first kite power stations using technology it believes could collectively 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.
Soaring potential: KPS believes it can challenge wind turbine technology
The company says each kite system will be capable of generating around 500 kilowatts of energy, enough to supply electricity to around 430 homes. The technology will be tested on a former RAF training base in south-west Scotland.
"Our focus this year has been on the launch and landing of the kites," says KPS Business Development Director David Ainsworth. "We want this whole process to be fully-automated so that you'll be able to launch-and-land our kites at the push of a button."
That breakthrough, the company says, will allow them to enter new markets in the immediate years ahead. "We have been inundated with interest from developing countries - particularly across Asia, South America and Africa," says Ainsworth.
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."
Their ambition has impressed Shell Ventures, Shell’s corporate venturing arm, which alongside German energy company E.On and US-based oil services firm Schlumberger, made the £5 million investment.
It has allowed the company to expand quickly. In just over a year KPS, which first appeared on Shell's radar through its GameChanger programme, has grown from 10 to over 25 staff. It has also bolstered its senior management with hires that include a new chief executive and chairman.
"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.
"Over time, KPS has convinced me that its high-altitude kite power solution has disruptive potential for the wind industry," adds Geert van de Wouw, the Vice President Shell Ventures. "It is an interesting contribution to renewable energy generation and a good fit to explore through Shell’s New Energies business."
Other airborne projects
Last year 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 2016, a start-up pitching competition in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, co-sponsored by Shell.
Makani, a US start-up acquired by Google in 2013, is also exploring a version of kite technology. It will reportedly start testing a single wind turbine design in Hawaii in 2018 after securing funding from the US Department of Energy.
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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