Will flying turbines finally get off the launchpad?

German utility RWE last month won planning permission to build a test centre for flying wind power generators in County Mayo, Ireland.

Richard Heap
June 17, 2021
Will flying turbines finally get off the launchpad?

German utility RWE last month won planning permission to build a test centre for flying wind power generators in County Mayo, Ireland.

RWE is partnering with airborne turbine company Ampyx Power to further test the potential of the technology. Airborne wind energy systems can take advantage of faster wind speeds at altitudes higher than those accessible by standard turbines, but there is no standard design.

Ampyx’s ‘turbines’ don’t look like wind turbines in their traditional sense.

They use automatic aircraft tethered to the ground and fly in a figure of eight pattern, at altitudes of between 200m and 450m. When the aircraft moves, they pull the tether that drives the generator on the ground. Each Ampyx ‘turbine’ currently has 150kW capacity, but the company is looking to grow this to a commercial system of 1MW.

Ampyx said its systems use 50%-90% less material than traditional wind turbines; are easy to transport and install; and enable operators to access winds that are more constant than most turbines can. Construction work on the Irish test centre with RWE is due to begin later this year.

But should wind investors now take airborne wind turbines seriously? We have seen various designs of flying turbines over the last decade, but none has yet taken off. Is it going to be different this time?

Pioneers in the sky

Many of the best-known companies in airborne wind turbines can be tracked back to the second half of the mid-2000s. Ampyx launched in 2008; Altaeros was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 and gained $7m investment from SoftBank in 2014; and then there’s Makani.

Makani was launched in 2006, was bought by Google in 2013, and tested a 600kW machine for the first time in 2016. Oil giant Shell then invested in 2019. However, in February 2020, Google parent group Alphabet stepped away as an investor in the company in February 2020 due to commercial concerns.

As Astro Teller, captain of moonshots at Google X and chairman of Makani, said at the time: “[T]he road to commercial viability is a much longer and riskier road than we’d hoped.”

Shell may yet decide to do something with the technology, which could work well if it was paired with offshore oil rigs, but it hasn’t recently said anything publicly. The high-profile withdrawal of Google was also seen as a big hit for the technology.

Nevertheless, there are still companies out there trying to take airborne wind turbines mainstream, including specialists Ampyx, SkySails – which has also been partnering with RWE since January – and Altaeros, which announced a pilot project in Alaska in late 2020. Then there’s continued investment from giants such as RWE and Shell.

The European Union is supporting the technology too.

For example, RWE and Ampyx are backed by EU’s Interreg North-West Europe funding programme to develop a commercial-scale airborne system. This shows there is appetite from public bodies to back airborne wind, as well as support from private firms.

And yet, we just can’t shake a nagging feeling of scepticism.

Flying and floating

As the wind sector grows, it makes sense that we'll see new types of turbines emerging for specialist uses. There is potential for airborne wind turbines.

For example, a paper from the UK’s ORE Catapult in 2019 reported that airborne wind could reduce the potential levelised cost of offshore wind energy to £30/MWh by 2030. This is lower than the UK government’s forecast in mid-2020, that offshore wind farms completed in UK waters in the 2020s will generate power at an average LCOE of £47/MWh. You can read that here.

And yet we can’t help but think back to the mid-2010s, when floating wind and flying turbines were both seen as innovative and early-stage technology.

Since then, floating wind has exploded into the wind industry’s consciousness. It has not yet reached commercial maturity, but costs are falling and the story is clear. This technology is seen as crucial in opening up hitherto inaccessible areas of the seabed for offshore wind. The momentum is undeniable.

For flying turbines, the story isn’t as clear. Yes, the technology may be able to open up hard-to-reach areas and may be cheaper than turbines with towers, but it isn’t yet tried and tested. Worse, there isn't yet a clear story that resonates with investors about why they should take it seriously.

For now, that challenge is as great as the technical hurdles.

German utility RWE last month won planning permission to build a test centre for flying wind power generators in County Mayo, Ireland.

RWE is partnering with airborne turbine company Ampyx Power to further test the potential of the technology. Airborne wind energy systems can take advantage of faster wind speeds at altitudes higher than those accessible by standard turbines, but there is no standard design.

Ampyx’s ‘turbines’ don’t look like wind turbines in their traditional sense.

They use automatic aircraft tethered to the ground and fly in a figure of eight pattern, at altitudes of between 200m and 450m. When the aircraft moves, they pull the tether that drives the generator on the ground. Each Ampyx ‘turbine’ currently has 150kW capacity, but the company is looking to grow this to a commercial system of 1MW.

Ampyx said its systems use 50%-90% less material than traditional wind turbines; are easy to transport and install; and enable operators to access winds that are more constant than most turbines can. Construction work on the Irish test centre with RWE is due to begin later this year.

But should wind investors now take airborne wind turbines seriously? We have seen various designs of flying turbines over the last decade, but none has yet taken off. Is it going to be different this time?

Pioneers in the sky

Many of the best-known companies in airborne wind turbines can be tracked back to the second half of the mid-2000s. Ampyx launched in 2008; Altaeros was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 and gained $7m investment from SoftBank in 2014; and then there’s Makani.

Makani was launched in 2006, was bought by Google in 2013, and tested a 600kW machine for the first time in 2016. Oil giant Shell then invested in 2019. However, in February 2020, Google parent group Alphabet stepped away as an investor in the company in February 2020 due to commercial concerns.

As Astro Teller, captain of moonshots at Google X and chairman of Makani, said at the time: “[T]he road to commercial viability is a much longer and riskier road than we’d hoped.”

Shell may yet decide to do something with the technology, which could work well if it was paired with offshore oil rigs, but it hasn’t recently said anything publicly. The high-profile withdrawal of Google was also seen as a big hit for the technology.

Nevertheless, there are still companies out there trying to take airborne wind turbines mainstream, including specialists Ampyx, SkySails – which has also been partnering with RWE since January – and Altaeros, which announced a pilot project in Alaska in late 2020. Then there’s continued investment from giants such as RWE and Shell.

The European Union is supporting the technology too.

For example, RWE and Ampyx are backed by EU’s Interreg North-West Europe funding programme to develop a commercial-scale airborne system. This shows there is appetite from public bodies to back airborne wind, as well as support from private firms.

And yet, we just can’t shake a nagging feeling of scepticism.

Flying and floating

As the wind sector grows, it makes sense that we'll see new types of turbines emerging for specialist uses. There is potential for airborne wind turbines.

For example, a paper from the UK’s ORE Catapult in 2019 reported that airborne wind could reduce the potential levelised cost of offshore wind energy to £30/MWh by 2030. This is lower than the UK government’s forecast in mid-2020, that offshore wind farms completed in UK waters in the 2020s will generate power at an average LCOE of £47/MWh. You can read that here.

And yet we can’t help but think back to the mid-2010s, when floating wind and flying turbines were both seen as innovative and early-stage technology.

Since then, floating wind has exploded into the wind industry’s consciousness. It has not yet reached commercial maturity, but costs are falling and the story is clear. This technology is seen as crucial in opening up hitherto inaccessible areas of the seabed for offshore wind. The momentum is undeniable.

For flying turbines, the story isn’t as clear. Yes, the technology may be able to open up hard-to-reach areas and may be cheaper than turbines with towers, but it isn’t yet tried and tested. Worse, there isn't yet a clear story that resonates with investors about why they should take it seriously.

For now, that challenge is as great as the technical hurdles.

German utility RWE last month won planning permission to build a test centre for flying wind power generators in County Mayo, Ireland.

RWE is partnering with airborne turbine company Ampyx Power to further test the potential of the technology. Airborne wind energy systems can take advantage of faster wind speeds at altitudes higher than those accessible by standard turbines, but there is no standard design.

Ampyx’s ‘turbines’ don’t look like wind turbines in their traditional sense.

They use automatic aircraft tethered to the ground and fly in a figure of eight pattern, at altitudes of between 200m and 450m. When the aircraft moves, they pull the tether that drives the generator on the ground. Each Ampyx ‘turbine’ currently has 150kW capacity, but the company is looking to grow this to a commercial system of 1MW.

Ampyx said its systems use 50%-90% less material than traditional wind turbines; are easy to transport and install; and enable operators to access winds that are more constant than most turbines can. Construction work on the Irish test centre with RWE is due to begin later this year.

But should wind investors now take airborne wind turbines seriously? We have seen various designs of flying turbines over the last decade, but none has yet taken off. Is it going to be different this time?

Pioneers in the sky

Many of the best-known companies in airborne wind turbines can be tracked back to the second half of the mid-2000s. Ampyx launched in 2008; Altaeros was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 and gained $7m investment from SoftBank in 2014; and then there’s Makani.

Makani was launched in 2006, was bought by Google in 2013, and tested a 600kW machine for the first time in 2016. Oil giant Shell then invested in 2019. However, in February 2020, Google parent group Alphabet stepped away as an investor in the company in February 2020 due to commercial concerns.

As Astro Teller, captain of moonshots at Google X and chairman of Makani, said at the time: “[T]he road to commercial viability is a much longer and riskier road than we’d hoped.”

Shell may yet decide to do something with the technology, which could work well if it was paired with offshore oil rigs, but it hasn’t recently said anything publicly. The high-profile withdrawal of Google was also seen as a big hit for the technology.

Nevertheless, there are still companies out there trying to take airborne wind turbines mainstream, including specialists Ampyx, SkySails – which has also been partnering with RWE since January – and Altaeros, which announced a pilot project in Alaska in late 2020. Then there’s continued investment from giants such as RWE and Shell.

The European Union is supporting the technology too.

For example, RWE and Ampyx are backed by EU’s Interreg North-West Europe funding programme to develop a commercial-scale airborne system. This shows there is appetite from public bodies to back airborne wind, as well as support from private firms.

And yet, we just can’t shake a nagging feeling of scepticism.

Flying and floating

As the wind sector grows, it makes sense that we'll see new types of turbines emerging for specialist uses. There is potential for airborne wind turbines.

For example, a paper from the UK’s ORE Catapult in 2019 reported that airborne wind could reduce the potential levelised cost of offshore wind energy to £30/MWh by 2030. This is lower than the UK government’s forecast in mid-2020, that offshore wind farms completed in UK waters in the 2020s will generate power at an average LCOE of £47/MWh. You can read that here.

And yet we can’t help but think back to the mid-2010s, when floating wind and flying turbines were both seen as innovative and early-stage technology.

Since then, floating wind has exploded into the wind industry’s consciousness. It has not yet reached commercial maturity, but costs are falling and the story is clear. This technology is seen as crucial in opening up hitherto inaccessible areas of the seabed for offshore wind. The momentum is undeniable.

For flying turbines, the story isn’t as clear. Yes, the technology may be able to open up hard-to-reach areas and may be cheaper than turbines with towers, but it isn’t yet tried and tested. Worse, there isn't yet a clear story that resonates with investors about why they should take it seriously.

For now, that challenge is as great as the technical hurdles.

German utility RWE last month won planning permission to build a test centre for flying wind power generators in County Mayo, Ireland.

RWE is partnering with airborne turbine company Ampyx Power to further test the potential of the technology. Airborne wind energy systems can take advantage of faster wind speeds at altitudes higher than those accessible by standard turbines, but there is no standard design.

Ampyx’s ‘turbines’ don’t look like wind turbines in their traditional sense.

They use automatic aircraft tethered to the ground and fly in a figure of eight pattern, at altitudes of between 200m and 450m. When the aircraft moves, they pull the tether that drives the generator on the ground. Each Ampyx ‘turbine’ currently has 150kW capacity, but the company is looking to grow this to a commercial system of 1MW.

Ampyx said its systems use 50%-90% less material than traditional wind turbines; are easy to transport and install; and enable operators to access winds that are more constant than most turbines can. Construction work on the Irish test centre with RWE is due to begin later this year.

But should wind investors now take airborne wind turbines seriously? We have seen various designs of flying turbines over the last decade, but none has yet taken off. Is it going to be different this time?

Pioneers in the sky

Many of the best-known companies in airborne wind turbines can be tracked back to the second half of the mid-2000s. Ampyx launched in 2008; Altaeros was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 and gained $7m investment from SoftBank in 2014; and then there’s Makani.

Makani was launched in 2006, was bought by Google in 2013, and tested a 600kW machine for the first time in 2016. Oil giant Shell then invested in 2019. However, in February 2020, Google parent group Alphabet stepped away as an investor in the company in February 2020 due to commercial concerns.

As Astro Teller, captain of moonshots at Google X and chairman of Makani, said at the time: “[T]he road to commercial viability is a much longer and riskier road than we’d hoped.”

Shell may yet decide to do something with the technology, which could work well if it was paired with offshore oil rigs, but it hasn’t recently said anything publicly. The high-profile withdrawal of Google was also seen as a big hit for the technology.

Nevertheless, there are still companies out there trying to take airborne wind turbines mainstream, including specialists Ampyx, SkySails – which has also been partnering with RWE since January – and Altaeros, which announced a pilot project in Alaska in late 2020. Then there’s continued investment from giants such as RWE and Shell.

The European Union is supporting the technology too.

For example, RWE and Ampyx are backed by EU’s Interreg North-West Europe funding programme to develop a commercial-scale airborne system. This shows there is appetite from public bodies to back airborne wind, as well as support from private firms.

And yet, we just can’t shake a nagging feeling of scepticism.

Flying and floating

As the wind sector grows, it makes sense that we'll see new types of turbines emerging for specialist uses. There is potential for airborne wind turbines.

For example, a paper from the UK’s ORE Catapult in 2019 reported that airborne wind could reduce the potential levelised cost of offshore wind energy to £30/MWh by 2030. This is lower than the UK government’s forecast in mid-2020, that offshore wind farms completed in UK waters in the 2020s will generate power at an average LCOE of £47/MWh. You can read that here.

And yet we can’t help but think back to the mid-2010s, when floating wind and flying turbines were both seen as innovative and early-stage technology.

Since then, floating wind has exploded into the wind industry’s consciousness. It has not yet reached commercial maturity, but costs are falling and the story is clear. This technology is seen as crucial in opening up hitherto inaccessible areas of the seabed for offshore wind. The momentum is undeniable.

For flying turbines, the story isn’t as clear. Yes, the technology may be able to open up hard-to-reach areas and may be cheaper than turbines with towers, but it isn’t yet tried and tested. Worse, there isn't yet a clear story that resonates with investors about why they should take it seriously.

For now, that challenge is as great as the technical hurdles.

German utility RWE last month won planning permission to build a test centre for flying wind power generators in County Mayo, Ireland.

RWE is partnering with airborne turbine company Ampyx Power to further test the potential of the technology. Airborne wind energy systems can take advantage of faster wind speeds at altitudes higher than those accessible by standard turbines, but there is no standard design.

Ampyx’s ‘turbines’ don’t look like wind turbines in their traditional sense.

They use automatic aircraft tethered to the ground and fly in a figure of eight pattern, at altitudes of between 200m and 450m. When the aircraft moves, they pull the tether that drives the generator on the ground. Each Ampyx ‘turbine’ currently has 150kW capacity, but the company is looking to grow this to a commercial system of 1MW.

Ampyx said its systems use 50%-90% less material than traditional wind turbines; are easy to transport and install; and enable operators to access winds that are more constant than most turbines can. Construction work on the Irish test centre with RWE is due to begin later this year.

But should wind investors now take airborne wind turbines seriously? We have seen various designs of flying turbines over the last decade, but none has yet taken off. Is it going to be different this time?

Pioneers in the sky

Many of the best-known companies in airborne wind turbines can be tracked back to the second half of the mid-2000s. Ampyx launched in 2008; Altaeros was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 and gained $7m investment from SoftBank in 2014; and then there’s Makani.

Makani was launched in 2006, was bought by Google in 2013, and tested a 600kW machine for the first time in 2016. Oil giant Shell then invested in 2019. However, in February 2020, Google parent group Alphabet stepped away as an investor in the company in February 2020 due to commercial concerns.

As Astro Teller, captain of moonshots at Google X and chairman of Makani, said at the time: “[T]he road to commercial viability is a much longer and riskier road than we’d hoped.”

Shell may yet decide to do something with the technology, which could work well if it was paired with offshore oil rigs, but it hasn’t recently said anything publicly. The high-profile withdrawal of Google was also seen as a big hit for the technology.

Nevertheless, there are still companies out there trying to take airborne wind turbines mainstream, including specialists Ampyx, SkySails – which has also been partnering with RWE since January – and Altaeros, which announced a pilot project in Alaska in late 2020. Then there’s continued investment from giants such as RWE and Shell.

The European Union is supporting the technology too.

For example, RWE and Ampyx are backed by EU’s Interreg North-West Europe funding programme to develop a commercial-scale airborne system. This shows there is appetite from public bodies to back airborne wind, as well as support from private firms.

And yet, we just can’t shake a nagging feeling of scepticism.

Flying and floating

As the wind sector grows, it makes sense that we'll see new types of turbines emerging for specialist uses. There is potential for airborne wind turbines.

For example, a paper from the UK’s ORE Catapult in 2019 reported that airborne wind could reduce the potential levelised cost of offshore wind energy to £30/MWh by 2030. This is lower than the UK government’s forecast in mid-2020, that offshore wind farms completed in UK waters in the 2020s will generate power at an average LCOE of £47/MWh. You can read that here.

And yet we can’t help but think back to the mid-2010s, when floating wind and flying turbines were both seen as innovative and early-stage technology.

Since then, floating wind has exploded into the wind industry’s consciousness. It has not yet reached commercial maturity, but costs are falling and the story is clear. This technology is seen as crucial in opening up hitherto inaccessible areas of the seabed for offshore wind. The momentum is undeniable.

For flying turbines, the story isn’t as clear. Yes, the technology may be able to open up hard-to-reach areas and may be cheaper than turbines with towers, but it isn’t yet tried and tested. Worse, there isn't yet a clear story that resonates with investors about why they should take it seriously.

For now, that challenge is as great as the technical hurdles.

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Not a member yet?

Become a member of the 6,500-strong A Word About Wind community today, and gain access to our premium content, exclusive lead generation and investment opportunities.