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Google X, Google’s lab where the company hatches big ideas like driverless cars and Google Glasses, is acquiring the high altitude wind startup Makani Power, according to an article in Bloomberg Business Week. This is the first time we’ve heard that Google’s secretive moonshot lab has bought an outside company and is bringing it in house — usually the lab works on crazy ideas in house, and if these ideas become less risky, then Google turns those into actual Google products or pushes the products into other Google divisions.
Makani Power has been building and testing a new type of wind turbine that is attached to a long tether (that could be 600 meters long) and which rotates high off the ground, capturing wind that is stronger and more consistent than typically found on the ground. The idea behind the innovation is that capturing high altitude wind could be cheaper, more efficient, and more suitable for certain environments like offshore than traditional wind turbines.
Makani Power has said its kite-style system could deliver twice as much capacity factor (a measure of energy generation productivity) with 20 percent less mass than conventional wind turbines. A computerized system launches the turbines and monitors and tracks the data on how much energy is generated.
Makani Power was founded in 2006 by Saul Griffith and former World Cup windsurfer Don Montague and a lot of the early employees were kite surfers. Griffith has since gone on to run Other Labs, his incubator workshop in San Francisco that is building things like a new natural gas engine and tiny solar thermal devices.
Makani Power previously raised $15 million from Google.org, back when Google.org and Google were more actively funding next-gen energy devices. According to the Business Week article Google X’s captain of moonshots, Astro Teller, proposed the idea of buying Makani Power to Larry Page and Page’s response was that Teller had to make sure to crash at least five of the high-altitude wind devices in the near future (basically put it to a rigorous enough test).
While Makani Power has been working on this innovation for seven years, it’s been slow going commercializing a product. The company has survived on the funding from Google.org, and grants from the Department of Energy’s early stage ARPA-E program. Late last year Makani’s charismatic, kitesurfing CEO, Corwin Hardham, tragically passed away unexpectedly. Earlier this year former energy policy maker and energy exec Cathy Zoi joined Makani’s board of directors.
Google is interested in clean energy generation partly because its data centers suck up a ton of energy and cost it a lot of money. Google has invested over a billion dollars into various clean energy projects, but in recent years moved away from making equity investments into clean energy startups. Perhaps Google X is a better place for this high-risk clean energy ideas.