A Google-sponsored startup hopes to be testing a new way to generate electricity with wind on the Big Island by this time next year.
Makani, formerly Makani Wind, joined with the tech giant last year, the first of what has become the Google X division projects, said Alden Woodrow, business team lead. He was on Hawaii Island last week meeting with businesses and community members in Waimea to talk about the pilot project, which will take place on Parker Ranch land south of Waimea and north of the old Saddle Road.
Their goal is a better wind turbine, one that takes up less space and costs less to build.
“We think it has the potential to make clean energy at a lower cost and lower impact,” Woodrow said.
The company, which operates in the San Francisco Bay area, has previously tested smaller versions of their product, what they call a wind kite. One of those tests was on Maui, and it was Hawaii’s wind, open land and the local culture that drew them back for another pilot, Woodrow said.
The visit last week was to start talking with community members about the project and what the community can expect while it takes place. Woodrow said when Makani’s kite is up and running, a staff member will be on-site at all times, even overnight, to monitor it.
The technology, which Makani has been working on for about eight years, puts a device, called the kite, on the end of a tether. Essentially, Woodrow said, the kite flies in circles, generating energy as it completes the loop. The energy is directed down the tether cable to a base on the ground. The kite’s motion mimics the circles made by a traditional wind turbine’s blade – basically the device takes the part of a wind turbine that is most energy efficient, the tip, and replicates it without the tower or rest of the large blades, he said.
A conventional wind turbine is about 500 feet tall. The top of a kite’s loop is about 1,100 feet above the ground, which is also good, Woodrow said, because wind speed increases the higher the device flies.
“We make the part that works really well,” Woodrow said. “We can eliminate hundreds of tons of steel, concrete and fiberglass.”
The kites also create less of an impact for bird populations, Woodrow claimed. For the Hawaii test, Makani officials are working with Big Island biologists to ensure the site they selected won’t interfere with any native birds.
In addition to costing less to make than a conventional wind turbine, Makani officials hope to get better energy production, to create lower electricity rates.
When the wind dies, operators can reverse the energy flow and power the kite to fly it back to the docking station on the base.
The test here will be of a model Makani believes can be commercially viable. Woodrow said they expect to generate enough energy to power about 300 houses.
The company talked with landowners in Hawaii and eventually came to an agreement with Parker Ranch.
“They have a lot of windy land that’s far away from everything,” Woodrow said. “They are open to new ideas. They’ve been really good to work with.”
Energy generation aside, safety is Makani’s top priority, Woodrow said. That means a lot more testing before deploying the test model here.
“Once we get here, we’re going to still take it really slow,” he said. “We’ve picked a site with a humongous buffer around it. … We have a lot of safety backups built into it.”
Those backups include three computers, in case one or two fails, so the kite can still land, he said.
The long-term economic impact of the device remains to be seen, he said, although their hope is to reduce energy costs while creating clean energy.
“The real focus for our overall team is proving the technology,” Woodrow said.
People have been trying to prove the technology for about 40 years, said Mike Barnard, a Senior Fellow for Wind at the Washington, D.C.-based Energy and Policy Institute. The “seminal” white paper on airborne energy generation came out in 1980, and the first tests took place in 1986. The technology is “sexy,” but thus far hasn’t been able to move beyond the test phase, he said.
When a company, such as Google, is paying for the research, it’s less problematic than governments funding such projects, Barnard said, for a few reasons.
One, lots of “really bright aerospace engineers” have tried to prove that airborne wind generation works.
“Nobody’s putting energy into electricity,” he said. “It kind of reeks of a too-hard problem.”
But Barnard, who runs the website barnardonwind.com, where he has written at length about his airborne wind energy concerns in general and about Makani’s proposal specifically, sees a broader issue with the research.
“There’s a significant trend in some people who used to be in the space of global warming denial,” Barnard said. “Now they’re fighting to preserve oil profits … (by) spending money on research instead of deploying viable wind and solar generation we have today.”
Barnard said that seems like a tactic used to slow down the spread of conventional wind turbines, although he acknowledged that the majority of people actually working on airborne wind energy are likely to believe that global warming exists.
Finally, he said, many people developing airborne wind technology do so while starting with incorrect assumptions about traditional wind turbines. Conventional turbine technology has improved significantly and the global supply chain has become more efficient as the technology has matured, he said. The wind farms are generating more energy than airborne proponents claim, and even the impact to birds is lower than people often think, Barnard said.
“They’re not paying attention to the current reality of utility scale wind generation,” he said.
He has also raised questions about Makani’s plans specifically, including long-term plans to deploy the kites at locations such as the North Sea. Those environments are likely too hostile for a successful project, he said. For example, the height of the mast needed to dock the kite high enough to keep it’s tail out of the water would rival a conventional wind turbine, and landing a kite on a buoy rocked by North Sea waves would be incredibly difficult.
Still, Barnard said he can see Google benefiting from the research it’s funding with Makani.
“Google is getting some really good intellectual capital and patents,” he said.