BATs floating 1,000 feet above the earth could hold the secret to providing cheap, quickly installed power to off-grid consumers or disaster-stricken areas.
The BAT, short for “Buoyant Air Turbine,” is essentially a wind turbine in the sky. Developers across the country and around the world are testing various methods of sending these lightweight, high-altitude turbines aloft, using blimps, winged aircraft, and cylindrical balloons to reach sweet-spot heights where operators can harvest the most wind with the least resistance.
These high-altitude turbines are capable of producing twice the amount of energy that a traditional wind turbine produces. High-altitude wind is simply stronger and more stable, which creates efficiencies and eventually leads to cheaper energy in areas where circumstances would ordinarily require heavy reliance on expensive fossil fuels.
BATs aren’t meant to replace traditional wind towers completely. Rather, they were designed to bring wind power to far-flung or geographically difficult regions where such traditional setups would be difficult or unfeasible. Think island communities, off-grid industries, military outposts, and regions without power following the effects of a devastating natural disaster.
“The reason high-altitude wind is so exciting and worth going after is really very simple,” said Ben Glass, CEO of Altaeros Energies, one of the companies at the forefront of this race to the skies. “There’s just a lot more of it. Winds [that are] one thousand, two thousand feet above the ground are on average five to eight times more powerful than what you get nearer to the ground.”
Altaeros is preparing to test a prototype in Fairbanks, Alaska, where it says it can reduce the per-kilowatt cost of electricity for certain remote dwellers from $1 to 18 cents, as MIT News reported. The company hopes its BAT technology, which uses an inflatable shell that looks like a donut to lift a lightweight turbine to the sky, will one day alleviate some of residents’ dependence on expensive gas and diesel generators.
Funded in part by a $1.3 million grant from the Alaska Energy Authority, Altaeros’ tests would lead to the first commercial high-altitude launch in the U.S. The program is expected to span a period of 18 months, The New York Times reports.
“Our biggest focus is on cost just because it’s so, so expensive in parts of Alaska,” Sean Skaling, deputy director of alternative energy at the authority, told the Times. “A nice byproduct is that it’s also typically greener and cleaner if it’s less expensive
Meanwhile, other businesses are rolling out their own versions of high-altitude turbines. Google’s Makani Turbine is named after the Hawaiian word for wind and uses a plane-like craft that flies in circles to gather power. German-based EnerKite uses a kite to hoist its turbines to the skies. And in Ontario, LTA Windpower is launching a PowerShip that soars like a blimp and uses wings with spinning propellers to harvest wind.
As Altaeros rolls out its technology, the company notes that the device has additional capabilities that could prove a boon for investors. Positioned at heights at and above traditional telecommunications and weather-monitoring towers, BAT could be a game-changer in the communications and forecasting space as well.
Really, the sky’s the limit.
Said Glass: “I think the Altaeros and the BAT is really exciting because it goes beyond the incremental improvements we’ve seen in wind and offers a breakthrough way to bring wind power to millions of new customers throughout the world.”