The city of Fairbanks, Alaska will soon be home to the world’s highest wind turbine from a startup spun out of MIT, called Altaeros. The four-year-old startup will deploy its large helium-filled blimp-looking turbine at 1,000 feet for 18 months at a cost of $1.3 million.
The idea around high-altitude wind is that the wind power at great heights can be much greater — winds 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the ground are 5 to 8 times as powerful as they are on the ground. Altaeros’ turbine, called the BAT (Buoyant Airborne Turbine) can deliver twice as much power as a comparable standard turbine.
Floating a wind turbine in the air could have other advantages as well, like it would have less of an environmental footprint on the ground, and it could be kept away from sensitive regions under conflict or in a disaster area. The team is targeting remote regions and specific applications like disaster relief, off grid backup power for cell phone base stations and military bases.
At 18 cents per kilowatt-hour, Altaeros’ technology is substantially more expensive on a per kilowatt hour basis than standard wind turbines. In some windy regions large standard wind turbines can be deployed at scale for 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour. The higher price of Altaeros’ technology means it would need to find future customers in areas where grid electricity is expensive — like Alaska — or where expensive offgrid diesel generators are the main option.
Other companies are looking at high altitude wind energy as well, including wind giant Vestas, and Google, which bought startup Makani Power. Altaeros raised funding for this first demonstration plant from the Alaska Energy Authority’s Emerging Energy Technology Fund, and Tata Group’s former Chairman Ratan N Tata.