Airborne Wind Energy: sophisticated technology, primitive marketing
Mar 28, 2017 Dr Peter Harrop
The technology of Airborne Wind Energy AWE has progressed in leaps and bounds recently as many developers prepare to sell them. Some have orders to service. See investment and commercial timelines and forecasts in the new IDTechEx report, Airborne Wind Energy 2017-2027.
The systems will come in two waves: off-grid low power systems in the ten to hundred kilowatt region because they are easiest to make and get approved then high power on-grid systems at 1MW or more because big is beautiful if you want to produce electricity more cheaply than other green technologies can achieve. These must have highly sophisticated robotics and autonomy.
As is common with radical new technologies, the marketing too often starts with a naïve assumption that it will be a direct replacement for an existing product, even sold purely on price of electricity. One developer says they will wipe out all conventional wind turbines in 20 years! Then comes a realisation that an invention may partly replace several products but mainly create totally new markets, as happened with the wheel and the mobile phone. In the case of AWE most proponents think they are competing with conventional wind turbines for lowest cost on-grid power generation but going where conventional cannot go is a much bigger addressable market and there are other addressable markets too.
Business planning must recognise the fact that different AWE technologies are suitable for different needs. For example, the Altaeros donut shaped helium balloon with a wind turbine in it could be acceptable on some high rise buildings and in moderately congested urban landscapes and autonomous launch, flight and landing may be simple, whereas the opposite may be the case with side wind aircraft and kites slicing through huge volumes of air and needing lifting into position by drone technology and very different benefits.
The addressable market for high power
So what have we here? We have the ability of the tethered aircraft to rise higher than a conventional wind turbine and reach the strong and more consistent winds higher up to create electricity by various means. Materials cost will be about one tenth but getting site approval will be tougher, involving aviation, and it is unlikely to scale to higher power than conventional or be nearer to "fit-and-forget".
Offshore, conventional is no pushover either. The AWE alternative would still incur the high cost of undersea power distribution. Its economics are unlikely to justify early retirement of conventional off-shore wind turbines. Even when they are being retired, the turrets in the sea from which they operate will be a sunk cost so the cost benefit of the AWE alternative will be based on balancing such things as increased safety and aviation related costs and questionable availability and maintenance offset by lower material costs. Paybacks will be uncertain for some time.
Start again. Ever tougher emissions laws and other factors mean most grid power being added in the world is renewable and there is a big market for off-grid alternatives. Consider the need to replace the 400 GW of diesel gensets at 0.5 MW and above (source IRENA) as they wear out, breach new carbon dioxide emissions laws or become intolerable because fire, noise, vibration, acid gases, particulates, fuel shipment, storage and other issues. 250 GW of the existing 400 GW of installed diesel generators could be replaced by renewable power generation technologies according to Blechinger et al., in 2014 but we now know that AWE can greatly increase that figure and even make gensets viable beyond traditional markets. On the other hand, 1.16 billion people (17% of the world's population) currently live without access to electricity; an estimated 615 million of them in Asia and the majority of those in India 306 million), Indonesia (66 million) and the Philippines (16 million). Off-grid renewable energy systems are in many cases the most economical solution for these population groups. There is pressure for remote industrial facilities and mines to be zero emission. There is increasing interest in back-up units where electricity supply is unreliable or as community mini-grids.
Some diesel generators are over 10 MW. 50 to 250 GW of the total installed diesel capacity could be hybridised with renewables of which around 12 GW is located on islands. There are over 10, 000 inhabited islands and 750 million islanders. Canada, USA and Chile have the most islands. Indonesia, the Philippines and China are the countries with the largest population of islanders. Shipping heroic amounts of concrete and steel to make ugly conventional wind turbines grabbing poor low-level winds is not the cleverest way of serving them. Elsewhere, AWE will have little competition where ground wind is poor and there is little sunshine for solar power or suitability for wave or tide power at sea or hydropower on land.
Wind power where there is no (ground) wind
According to the Global Wind Energy Outlook November 2016, wind power capacity will increase by 365 GW by 2020, and increase an additional 880 GW by 2030. One GW is equal to $1.4 billion in turbine supply agreements according to the average cost level. In this scenario, 16% of the global energy mix will come from wind power by 2030. As some developers point out, AWE is suitable to establish much more wind power to the energy mix by exploiting "impossible" locations. Globally, about 400 TW is available to conventional wind turbines and 1800 TW to AWE if it could fly without restriction in height in proposed no-go zones, creating an additional market 3.5 times as big at 1400 TW. In the real world that will be sharply reduced by flight and ground restrictions, wildlife protection, danger to existing wind turbines and so on. Maybe AWE can access an extra on-grid high power market as large as that available to conventional wind turbines and maybe its adoption rate will be similar, taking a similar 30-40 years to achieve this from first sales in 2017 or 2018.
Sell for multiple benefits beyond cost of electricity. Windlift is selling AWE to the US military for multiple benefits, the biggest being elimination of the diesel supply line that impedes speed of military advance. There are plenty of potential uses for tailored off-grid AWE. These need to be thoroughly investigated and matched to the different technologies. For example, selling to financially stressed customers is not necessarily optimal. eWind wishes to sell to struggling US farmers with a sophisticated land rental model and Skysails and others target ship operators when even Maersk Line, the lowest cost operator, lost £367 million in 2016. Both can succeed when new laws and economics are on their side but wealthy customers can also be targeted. Just as oil is extracted invisibly in areas of outstanding natural beauty, so can AWE operate almost invisibly and silently in such regions when a conventional wind turbine is banned for being the opposite.
Achieving the impossible
The above arguments are all well and good but a Thomas Edison or Elon Musk would think in a more radical way. What is ridiculously impossible in common understanding? One candidate is the energy independent electric ship and another is a grid and even a microgrid with no battery storage yet full availability. One way of doing it would be to have generation units combining several new harvesting devices with complementary intermittency. Consider 1MW AWE coupled to Witt Energy 6D motion harvesting in an unstable buoy at sea or to 1MW Oscilla Power magnetostrictive wave power in an offshore turret. Add solar. On land, think of a widely useful portable genset with no energy storage, extending solar with doubled efficiency as planned for Hanergy energy independent cars in 2020 and AWE. Perhaps the AWE hardware can be made for next to nothing in China and the added value come from product and system integration, software and facilities management. There is more to marketing AWE than the obvious. For more, see the IDTechEx reports, Airborne Wind Energy 2017-2027, Energy Independent Vehicles 2017-2037 and High Power Energy Harvesting Off-Grid: Microwatt to Megawatt 2017-2027.
Top image: SkySails