For Altaeros Energies, a startup launched out of MIT, the sky’s the limit when it comes to wind power.
Founded by alumni Ben Glass ’08, SM ’10 and Adam Rein MBA ’10, Altaeros has developed the world’s first commercial airborne wind turbine, which uses a helium-filled shell to float as high as a skyscraper and capture the stronger, steadier winds available at that altitude.
Proven to produce double the energy of similarly sized tower-mounted turbines, the system, called Buoyant Air Turbine (or BAT), is now readying for commercial deployment in rural Alaska.
Surrounded by a circular, 35-foot-long inflatable shell made of the same heavy-duty fabric used in blimps and sails, the BAT hovers 1,000 to 2,000 feet above ground, where winds blow five to eight times stronger, as well as more consistently, than winds at tower level (roughly 100 to 300 feet).
Three tethers connect the BAT to a rotating ground station, automatically adjusting its altitude to obtain the strongest possible winds. Power generated by the turbine travels down one of the tethers to the ground station before being passed along to microgrids.
“Think of it as a reverse crane,” says Glass, who invented the core BAT technology. “A crane has a nice stationary component, and an upper platform that rotates in order to suspend things down. We’re doing the same thing, but suspending things up.”
Next year, the BAT will test its ability to power microgrids at a site south of Fairbanks, Alaska, in an 18-month trial funded by the Alaska Energy Authority. People in rural Alaska rely on gas and diesel generators for power, paying upward of $1 per kilowatt-hour for electricity. The BAT, which has a capacity of 30 kilowatts, aims to drop that kilowatt-hour cost down to roughly 18 cents, the co-founders say.