It’s windy up there and it seems like a good idea to capture that wind energy. Today’s article focuses on a company called Kite Power Solutions, which develops electricity generating kites. Kite energy is a topic quite interesting for me personally, because I’m a kitesurfer (not a very good one though, I get dragged underwater on a regular basis, which makes me appreciate the power of wind).
I do like kites, so when I heard about Kite Power Solutions I immediately thought this is going to be cool. We should definitely look into that and see how well it can perform on Earth and, of course, on Mars too.
Let’s start with a bit of a background/physics. A proper way to describe kite energy is called ‘crosswind kite power’ which is power derived from kite systems with energy-harvesting parts that fly transverse to the direction of the ambient wind. I think this pretty much sums it up in one sentence, but if you need more info Google is your friend. Let’s get back to our startup company of interest.
About Kite Power Solutions
Kite Power Solutions (KPS) also known as KPS Energy operates from Glasgow in the United Kingdom and develops technology to produce renewable energy from the wind. Kite energy is an alternative option to wind turbines that we get to see across the world in more and more places.
Some people love the turbines, some people hate them, because they change the landscape and make noise as loud as your refrigerator (at a distance of 300m from the turbine). It seems like electricity generating kites could address both points. However, as you would expect there are some challenges facing kites in the air.
KPS Energy was founded by Bill Hampton, whose vision it is to see his electricity generating kites operating similarly to offshore windfarms, with the ability to deploy systems anywhere in the world, especially in regions unable to use wind turbines. I would love to see the KPS Energy kites from above, flying over some country or an ocean. There is something relaxing about a kite flying in a figure of 8 (again, kitesurfer talking).
Kite Power Solutions is a company with serious investors including Shell and there is a lot of research behind their kite energy, with kites capable of handling extreme weather conditions like high wind speeds or snow. The company mentions, however, that icing is a potential problem they are working on. This could be caused by a combination of cold and damp conditions.
Is it going to be smooth sailing for KPS?
I am not completely sold on the idea of using kites as a main source of energy for a big community (just yet) as I have a hard time seeing this as something that could be scaled up to the level of big power plants or solar plants, but I can picture kites flying in the air and producing energy in remote locations, with extreme weather conditions (and therefore more wind) or in locations requiring emergency power supplies – this is definitely a market for kite energy and a good selling point.
Potentially Kite Power Solutions could be a good option offshore, assuming that steady winds keep kites up in the air and the floating construction allows for low maintenance costs compared to conventional offshore wind turbine farms.
Kite Power Solutions develops a twin-kite system which delivers clean (yep), and cheap energy (cheaper than wind turbines at least), using 85% less material than wind turbines. This makes sense, when we compare the setup costs of a wind turbine versus flying a kite in the air.
They will both generate wind energy, but are they both sustainable at the same level? What happens when the kite falls? Is it controlled by a software? And which solution is more energy efficient? I have many, many questions.
The initial setup for electricity generating kites seems easy compared to the wind turbine, however, it depends on the wind – and as a kitesurfer I can say that it is not easy to get a kite up in the air when it’s not (very) windy. Somehow wind turbines seem to do a better job in this situation as the wing is already ready to go at the target height and requires no lift off the ground.
The fun part starts when we talk about technology involved in Kite Power Solutions’ kites. I thought about this – well, kites are cheap to make, there is a tether, so even if the tether fails you just get a new kite (not a very sustainable way of thinking). Luckily, smart people at Kite Power Solutions have solutions to every problem (maybe that’s why ‘Solutions’ are in the company name).
When the kite tether fails, the kite’s on-board control system kicks in and flies the kite to a pre-programmed landing location. The system on the ground plays a role too, by detecting the system failure and reeling the remaining tether back on to the drum. I’m guessing the same system is responsible for getting the kite up in the air and back down whenever it is required?
What surprises me is that the systems developed by Kite Power Systems are totally autonomous. What happens when the wind changes or… there is no wind? KPS Energy teams monitor all activities remotely, but I wonder how often the system fails and what happens in case of that failure. Is the team going to drive to the location, or maybe even chase a kite flying somewhere in a random direction?
And how does it affect life in the air? Does it cause disruptions to birds or bats flying in the area? This is something that all wind energy companies look at, so would be interesting to see some more environmental data from Kite Power Solutions in the long-term. Sometimes solutions which seem like a good idea on paper are not that great in practice, e.g. the environmental cost of driving electric cars vs petrol cars – and the fact that electric energy has to be generated by big companies in ways which can negatively impact the environment.
The kite energy technology is simple in principle. There are two kites tethered to a spool. They fly in the air at high speed in figures of eight (8) and they pull cables which turn the drum, generating electricity.
Okay, so it’s easy to understand the wind energy production ability of wind turbines, because a) we can see quite a lot of them and b) they look quite massive, so they look powerful even if they’re hollow inside. What about kite energy then?
According to Kite Power Solutions a kite system composed of 2 kites will be able to generate 500 kilowatts of energy, which is enough electricity to supply around 430 homes. Not bad for 2 kites flying in the air. Sounds like a good option for some developing countries without established power network.
Kite Power Solutions is not the only startup in the field of wind energy. Some other notable companies include E-Kite, and Makani. Both with some serious investor backing. Kite energy companies have different ideas regarding the kite structure, some using kitesurfing-like kites, other rigid wings with electricity generators attached directly to the wing. The best concept is yet to be picked as I’m sure we will pick the most efficient option in the near future.
Kite energy can be generated even at altitudes reaching up to 1000 m. Winds at higher altitudes are steadier and stronger, which can be seen as a huge advantage over conventional ground wind turbines. This could help kite energy companies generate more power over the year than their ground-based competitors. There is simply more energy to harness up there than on the ground with the wind power available at 800 m estimated to be about 4 times the power available at altitude of about 80 m.
The kite energy has another advantage. Kites can fly at different altitudes so that they avoid aerodynamic interference. Sort of like being stuck in traffic (2D environment) versus flying in a helicopter and avoiding all the traffic (3D environment). Kite Power Systems can adjust both height and position of their electricity generating kites. You can’t do this with wind turbines (at least for now).
This could be a big advantage for offshore power plants with strong winds and kites flying at different altitudes, but again there would be some challenges like long tethers, kite proximity, and air traffic like helicopters or maybe even some small commercial flights.
What about the wind power around the world?
The global wind power capacity grows year on year, increasing its share of the worldwide electric power usage, with over 10% share of electricity provided in the European Union. For example, in Denmark in 2017 the wind power provided over 40% of consumed electricity.
In China we have Gansu Wind Farm – the world’s largest wind farm has several thousand turbines. The biggest offshore wind farms in the UK have about half the size of Gansu’s energy production capacity. In some way this could be good news for kite energy companies like Kite Power Systems. Why? Because wind turbine power plants are not very efficient.
Winds close to the ground are not steady, and not that strong either. The wind speed is not constant, so the actual output of a massive wind farm never matches its’ full potential. The way to measure the actual productivity is called the capacity factor, which often reaches 15-50%. The UK is a good example as there were many occasions between 2008 and 2010 when the wind output fell to less than 2% of the installed capacity. High altitudes offer strong, steady winds so if the technology improves the capacity factor of kite energy companies could overtake wind turbines.
Can you imagine Kite Power Solutions operating on Mars?
Let’s talk about Kite Power Solutions and kite energy for Mars. There are many things we need to learn about the Red Planet, but one thing we already know is that the solar power could be less useful than I initially thought, with limited/no sunlight for long periods of time and dust storms killing access to solar panels. On top of that Mars is farther away from the Sun than Earth, which means it gets as much sunlight in the summer as Canada gets in the middle of the winter.
Dust storms and winds are common on Mars, so we could either harness their power for energy generation or in the process of terraforming reduce their impact on the environment. I think some smart people, who are way smarter than me, already look at both possibilities.
Considering that Mars could be (and should be) seen as an extreme location with extreme weather conditions, a kite system like the one created by Kite Power Solutions could be a good alternative to wind turbines which are often heavy, static, and would harness less wind energy close to the ground than a kite at a high altitude. In addition, electricity generating kites would be more mobile, lighter, easier to deploy and easier to protect from changing weather conditions – e.g. this scenario: the kite’s system lands the kite in a designated spot next to a rover, tether is pulled, the kite is folded/pushed inside the rover and it drives away or waits until the weather conditions improve again.
The air on Mars is thin, so I’m not sure how well the Kite Power Solutions kites would operate in the Martian atmosphere initially, but I think that we will do some terraforming sooner or later.
Another concept to get energy on Mars could be to attach some sort of a rotor to two tall objects e.g. mountains – a high velocity, tunnelled wind would pass through the rotor generating energy. Would this work on Mars? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know about this, but I know I found a topic for another article for RedPlanet.green!
At a cost lower than wind turbines I look forward to seeing more kites of different sizes and shapes flying all over the world – and surely one of the kites will be attached to me, using its energy to drag me underwater again…
Enough talking – have a look at the video from Kite Power Solutions and Bill Hampton, the founder of the company. The video deserves way more views, so if you like it please share with friends.
Dr Bart Alright