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Apr 30 2012

Blimp-lofted wind turbines: huge return on investment

This awesome-looking prototype of blimp-lofted wind turbine can apparently achieve significant energy return on costs by being tethered high above the usual 300ft ceiling presented by ordinary tower-based turbines, delivering power for up to 65% cheaper than conventionally-built wind turbines that produce the same power. And that 65% figure assumes a height of 1000ft — Altaeros was aiming for a working ceiling of 2000ft!

My chief concern is the use of helium, which we’re kinda running terribly short on, owing to the ridiculously short-sighted US Congress in 1996. Their setting the price artificially low, and their vow to sell off the helium reserve by 2015, coupled with terrible misuse of helium for party balloons (since the stuff’s so damned cheap, it’s actually more expensive to recycle it!), could spell disaster for us. We have no ready source for it except for the natural decay of minerals or as a byproduct of the extraction of natural gas. And our use of helium is increasing rapidly, since we use a good deal of it for medical and radiation detection purposes.

If we can solve the helium problem, I’ll take a million of these, kplzthx. We might just solve the energy problem yet!

Hat tip to Climate Crocks.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Coragyps

    Hydrogen will work! Just don’t allow passengers!

    Or lightning……

  2. 2
    slc1

    Perhaps a little caution is in order before building huge wind farms.

    http://phys.org/news/2012-04-farms-temperature-region.html

  3. 3
    jamessweet

    Yeah I just recently learned of the helium thing. Sometimes reality just ruins all the fun…

  4. 4
    baal

    I don’t think the local slight heating effect is more than a local (i.e. right next to the towers). Something to take into account during planning but otherwise had to see it as a big problem.

    The helium issue is a big one and I was also wondering about numerosity. Can’t you put a honking huge turbine on a tower but a relatively more modest (but more efficient) on in a blimp? It’d be nice to know how that works out.

  5. 5
    astro

    It’s been a few years since the Hindenberg Thingy. I’m sure technology has improved enough to counter the problems with using hydrogen

  6. 6
    Randomfactor

    Or use the waste heat from the turbines to heat the air inside the blimp? Or is there not enough?

  7. 7
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    Compared to blades on posts, this should be much more obvious for birds and bats to avoid. Plus a bit of bouncy castle deflection.

  8. 8
    Eamon Knight

    What happens in bad weather? Do you have to haul it down and re-launch it?

  9. 9
    Jim Baerg

    See also
    http://www.skywindpower.com/ww/index.htm

    Since winds are faster & steadier farther above the ground, these high altitude wind schemes could become genuinely useful.

  10. 10
    Worldtraveller

    It seems like a good idea on the surface, but you’re trading one set of problems for others.

    1) This scheme poses a much larger threat to aircraft. From the tethers, the balloons themselves, and the possible breakaway balloon, all those issues would have to be dealt with, and each one is potentially a worse danger than the current windfarms. The tethers would pose a serious potential threat to both large and small aircraft, while the balloons/turbines would primarily pose a hazard to commercial (and military) aircraft (and higher flying smaller aircraft, there are plenty).

    2) I’m sure the designers have at least addressed some of these issue already, but storms, lightning, and other natural hazards exist for this type of things, as well as the issues above.

  11. 11
    Dalillama

    I don’t understand why everyone’s so upset about the Hindenburg in the first place. It wasn’t any worse than airplane crashes in terms of casualties, and we had hundreds of those throughout the last century (although we’ve gotten a lot better about fewer people dying for the most part), I’m sure that we can do something w/ hydrogen zeppelins. I mean, big bag of flammable gas vs small tube full of flammable liquid, right?

  12. 12
    Coragyps

    slc1:
    That study was in the county I live in and in two neighboring counties. We only have about 2500 of the ground-mounted units here.

  13. 13
    Art

    One thing that makes it simpler is that you could easily use hydrogen in this application. Both cheaper and higher lifting capacity per unit volume. Cheap enough that you could simply zipper the top and release the gas during landing. This makes ground handling much simpler. Particularly in high winds.

    Less encouraging is that aerostats have a poor record of long term reliability. The US navy found that in most locations and seasons they couldn’t keep them up for more than a few days at a time. Storms, high winds, and/or shear, not to mention icing and lightning, tend to cause problems. Most of which require it to be serviced on the ground and/or protected by a crew. Needing a crew on hand means costs go up.

    Lighter-than-air ships can avoid some of these problems because they are mobile and can dodge storms. But even there there are limits. Look up the history of the USS Akron (ZRS-4), US navy dirigibles that were used extensively in WW2 for spotting subs, and radar aerostats used along the southern borders. Keeping things aloft, even at 100′, is clearly not simple or easy. Most lighter-than-air crashes happen while launching or landing.

    It isn’t a bad idea but there are issues to deal with.

  14. 14
    triamacleod

    Actually, they’ve been toying with this idea for a while. A company called Magenn http://www.magenn.com/ was trying for a while with limited success. It seems the blimp had to be much larger than originally anticipated to generate decent KW.

    As for lighting and static electricity I would think some sort of grounding would be attached to the tethers. I would think something like this would do best were there aren’t huge fluctuations in temps though.

  15. 15
    Laphroaig

    There are other concepts for tapping high altitude winds (potentially much higher than 1000-2000 ft) using … well… kites, essentially. See e.g.

    http://peswiki.com/index.php/Directory:Wind:Ladder_Mills

    http://www.kitegen.com/en/technology/details/

    These systems would keep the generators on the ground and put relatively cheap heavier-than-air tethered aerofoils aloft.

  16. 16
    robb

    there is plenty of hydrogen and helium in the sun. all we gotta do is send a spaceship there to gather it. i think it would be best to go at night so the spaceship doesn’t get burned up.

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