For several hundred years, the wind powered the world’s economy. Sails on great ships harnessed the wind’s power and gave lifeblood to the movement of goods, people, ideas, and whole cultures. The age of steam and fossil fuels ended the wind power age, but the wind is rising again.
The statuesque, spinning wind turbine is undergoing a renaissance of redesign and reimagination. Read on to see some of the ways that engineering innovators are developing the next generation of wind energy technology—and building an era of abundant, affordable energy. With wind energy predicted to continue having technology breakthroughs and falling costs, it’s no wonder the future is going to be powered by renewables like wind.
Making Wind Turbines That Fly
The fastest, strongest, and steadiest winds are always also the highest. But building increasingly taller towers will ultimately be becomes unfeasible. So, researchers are finding ways to send wind turbines higher up into the atmosphere to catch those winds where the occur.
One of the ways companies are tackling that challenge is with kites. Companies including Google’s Makani and Europe’s Kite Power Systems are building massive kites that are designed to soar 1,000 feet in the air. Kite wind farms could generate hundreds of kilowatt hours; Makani has already tested a prototype that produced 600 kilowatt hours.
Wind kites cover more area and encounter more wind than traditional wind turbines do. They’re also greener in the sense that they take a fraction of the materials to produce than traditional turbines.
Another way to give wind turbines a boost is to allow them to float or fly, more like aircraft than kites. Several companies are working on wind turbines that either actively fly like airplanes or passively float like blimps. Researchers may even be able to create sustainable drones that harvest wind energy, or bladeless wind turbines.
Exploring What a Wind Turbine Could Be
Other companies are working on improving and modifying the design of ground-based turbines to the next evolution of what a wind turbine can be. That means adding efficiencies in how they’re built or maintained, or experimenting with aesthetic design.
No one style has yet risen to predominance. Proposed designs include vertical wind turbines, odd looking eddy turbines, and low-lying turbines. Other researchers are working on building lenses that funnel wind into turbines that generate 2-5 times the power of existing wind turbines.
Building with Nature in Mind
Wind turbines sometimes bring up the question of how safe they area for nearby animals. Recent research shows that they’re far less a threat than some may fear or assume. In fact, a 2013 study found that feral cats cause the deaths of birds more often that wind turbines, while another study found that fossil fuel production kills up to 15 times more than wind turbines. That said, there are efforts taking place to ensure the safety of animals, like large birds categorized as raptors.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) collaborated with two commercial wind companies to improve bird detection systems. Given the wind industry’s commitment to being environmentally responsible, it’s likely that risks associated with wind turbines (whether actual or perceived) will continue to be addressed and solutions found.
Wind power is the way of the future. Like any worthwhile technology, continuing to enhance it with cost efficiencies and design innovations will take us one step closer to a cleaner future, each and every day.
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