John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Its inventors say it can reach more powerful winds than boring, land-based turbines.
It's cute, like a stubby albino shark. It's floatable, rising to an altitude of 2,000 feet. And to believe the inventors of the "Buoyant Airborne Turbine," or BAT, it's also the future of wind energy for rural residents and disaster-management personnel.
The BAT is Altaeros Energies' attempt to improve the traditional wind turbine. The thinking is that the strongest winds roar high off the ground, so why not build a machine that can access them? Altaeros, a company founded inside MIT and still based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, believes the best way to do this is not by making turbines taller—something the wind-energy industry is striving to do—but by sending an inflatable turbine up to harvest the all-powerful gusts.
The colossal, doughnut-shaped craft has a helium-filled shell that holds it aloft and provides stabilization. Turbine blades jammed in its central orifice generate juice, which is transmitted through a cable to a docking station on the ground. Three stronger tethers hold the atmospheric drifter in place. In the event a storm snaps all of them, Altaeros assures it will automatically vent gas and descend, so it won't end up in Old Man Jones' oak tree two states over.
A comparable tower-based turbine generates only about half the power of this short-bus blimp, according to a recent write-up at the National Science Foundation. (Altaeros has received a couple federal grants to pursue the project.) The present prototype reportedly can light up a 12-home community that might otherwise rely on pricey, emissions-spewing diesel:
Diesel generators are the standard in power generation for rural and off-grid areas. However, diesel fuel is expensive to deliver to these locations, and diesel generators, though inexpensive to install, are expensive to operate and maintain....
Combined with significant increases in energy output and the ability to install the unit in 24 hours, the BAT substantially reduces the cost of energy and time to reach customers' energy needs. In the future, Altaeros expects to deploy the BAT alongside first responders in emergency response situations when access to the electric grid is unavailable.
As to the dicey subject of a helium shortage, the company says not to worry and trust the marketplace: "Forecasts suggest that prices will roughly double over the next 20 years, over which time there will not be any significant supply shortages."