Tuesday, July 07, 2009

"Kite Energy" Might Not Be As Bad As It Sounds

There's a lot of hype in the alternative energy field. It's not always easy to determine what has real potential and what doesn't. To be honest, all one needs is an idea and a good graphics program and maybe a real photo or two and you're new technology. In a moment, I'm going to talk about kite technology which is an intriquing development out of Turin, Italy.

But first, I'm going to talk about Bourne Energy. For all I know, it's a legitimate company with big plans. Here's their website. If you go there, you'll notice some nice graphics (even back in the 1960s, magazines like Popular Science had some of the best graphic artists for systems that never came to be). I tried to find more information on the company and all I found was a P.O. box in Malibu, CA. Malibu is obviously not a manufacturing area, though it has few nice boutique type offices for architects, etc. If you scroll down, or click on RS Portable, you'll see a portable energy generator that can be carried on the back and used to pull in energy from a river. There's nothing about the price but I suspect such a unit would be expensive. Actually, a friend of mine built a simple device from parts found in an electronics store and one or two parts found in his storage unit. The device didn't generate much power but it was sufficient for his purposes. He took it up to a mountain cabin that lacks electricity but there's a small creek there, only a foot or two wide, and he simply set up his device, ran the wiring to his cabin and he was able to use his computer. It was cheap, easy to fix up and reasonably efficient. I know, we need robust systems that work and last, but I still find myself rooting for simpler solutions. Such simpler solutions exist wherever the imagination and some experience combine to get something operating. But of course it's unavoidable that we'll also need robust solutions—if they can be made to work at a reasonable cost.

Now to the kite system. The Oil Drum: Europe has a post on a kite system that would utilize the high winds at an altitude of some 800 to 1,000 meters. They claim that they may be able to get an energy return on energy invested of over a hundred. If true, that would be a number not seen since the early days of oil fields in Texas and Saudi Arabia. The system depends on a kite shaped like a narrow paraglider controlled by two lines. The energy would come from a pumping or piston action, with minimal energy pulling the kite in a short distance with one line before the wind pulls the kite back up (here's the website of the company, Kite Gen; both Kite Gen and The Oil drum: Europe have some videos worth seeing).

The problem with the kite system is obviously in the details. Can the problems be ironed out? Where can such a system be used? What happens with the lines break? How often do parts have to be replaced? What kind of area density can be used for each kite? Can the energy be smoothed out? What happens during storms and lightning? The builders of the system claim that they have most of the problems licked and are aiming for a bigger test of the system with proprietary software to control the functions.

The kite system would be an exciting breakthrough, if true. But I wonder where these things can be placed? If they're somewhat dangerous, they will have to be built in unpopulated area (or at least in very low density areas). They might be compatible with cattle ranches or remote areas. Offshore facilities in unused sea lanes would be useful. Obviously, the more distant these facilities are from populated areas, the more infrastructure that will have to be built to get electricity to market. But the idea and the potential for return on energy invested is stunning.

But the idea is not original as one of the promoters pointed out. See this wikipedia article on an early 19th century pioneer of kite power. If kite energy lives up to its potential, there will still be an enormous need for many other systems. And maybe that's the key to the new era: flexibility and diversity.



Anonymous S.W. anderson said...

Intriguing, but as you say the devil's in the details.

I read this week T. Boone Pickens has a manufacturer ready to deliver a whole bunch of very big, very pricy wind turbines. Three stories tall. He's also got a bunch of land leases in Texas, the Panhandle, I think.

But now Pickens is looking for new locations for his wind farms. He says the Texas tracts are too far from where the power is needed. Piping the electricity to distant markets was more problematic and expensive than anticipated. So, he'll probably put up a few windmills in Texas. The others will have to be closer to markets.

I expect the kites would present similar hurdles to overcome. And, as you said, they could present safety and aesthetic concerns in heavily populated areas.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

S.W., I suspect that Pickens is playing games. The upper Midwest has even bigger problems getting wind power to where it's needed but they're moving forward, though slowly. It'll be interesting to see what Pickens does.

The kites may only be a niche concept but I'm learning more, sometimes in surprising places. On page 44 of the August 2009 Scientific American is an illustration of how sitting on a good swivel chair you can use a weight in your hand to spin yourself in a circle. It isn't that different from the kite idea.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmmm - about that friend who cobbled together something to run his computer at the remote cabin . . . could be a total kook, U know? Talkin' thru his hat, as dey say!

8:47 AM  

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