High Altitude Wind Generators Could Meet Global Energy Demands 100 Times Over
Consider for a moment that the very best ground-based wind generators we have are capable of producing about 1 kilowatt of electrical energy per square meter of area swept. And that's when wind conditions are at their peak.
Now, consider that high-altitude turbines placed in the jet stream are capable of generating 16 times that much power.
It's true. If we were able to place a network of wind turbines at altitudes ranging from 1,600 feet to 40,000 feet about the surface of the Earth, we could theoretically harvest enough electricity to meet current global energy demands 100 times over. Best of all, it would all come from a clean, sustainable resource.
Engineers searching for sources of sustainable, environmentally responsible power have long been seeking the green Holy Grail: a high-density energy resource that overcomes the typical diffuseness that makes most such power sources inefficient or unfeasible.
High-altitude wind energy may prove to be just that.
Winds in the jet stream and the cloud tops not only reach high speeds much more often than do winds on the grounds, they also sustain these high speeds. Even better, wind patterns at high altitudes are much easier to predict than those on the ground.
For all the promise of high-altitude wind power, though, it's not quite time to break out the champagne just yet.
High-altitude turbines are still in the prototype stage, and it will be years before they're ready for actual use in the air. Currently, it's impossible to predict how efficient they will be or how well they will run in a real-world rather than controlled setting.
Maintenance costs for these airborne wind generators will also be astronomical. They will also pose dangers, both to airplanes (which typically follow the jet stream to save on fuel and achieve higher speeds) and to people on the ground. Airplanes could easily crash into the floating power stations, and if one should ever fall – look out below. The results could be disastrous if the debris crashed in a populated area.
For all their promise, high-altitude wind generators may well turn out to be more trouble than they're worth. The only way we'll find out for sure is to conduct an expensive and potentially risky experiment to see what happens when we actually put one up in the jet stream.