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A few years back, I went by train from Cologne to Basel, a 300 km journey through the magnificent German country side and most notably the Romantic Rhine Valley. As you might expect, I didn’t see the Lorelei but I did see quite a few wind turbines. To my greatest disappointment they were all idle. Not one was producing a single watt of electricity… This means the electricity used to power the train was probably produced by coal plants. This is the sad reality about wind turbines: they produce electricity only part of the time and not necessarily when we most need it. Wind turbines therefore have to be backed up by power plants burning fossil fuel. Bottom line is that the Germans, despite being leaders in the wind energy industry, and despite their influential green politicians end up producing more CO2 per capita than the other Europeans.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that wind energy is doomed. What it means is that with on the shelf technology, wind energy probably cannot do much to significantly curb down CO2 emissions. As is the case with most renewable energy options, more R&D is needed before wind energy can become economically and truly environmentally efficient. When you think about it, nowadays wind turbines are not much more than XXI century versions of the wind mills our ancestors were using to turn wheat into flour. If wind energy is to become a major source of energy, I would bet it will be based on a completely different technological approach. After all Edison didn't invent the light bulb by improving the candle...

The Italian company KiteGen is actually doing some fascinating research in this regards. They decided to completely forget the “windmill approach”. They are instead looking into the possibility of tapping the powerful high altitude winds with kites anchored to revolving structure called a carrousel. The kites would fly at about 800 meters high. At this altitude, wind is not only very powerful but also fairly constant, eliminating the need for backup coal plants.

According to KiteGen, it would be possible to build a single carrousel with an output of several GigaWatt ie of similar magnitude to the output of a nuclear plant. A carrousel of 1 GW would have a footprint of only 8km². (As a comparison, you would need 2 or 3000 “traditional” wind turbines to produce the same power output and you would mess up 300km² of land in the process.) The production cost would be around 10 to 15 €/MWh. This is very cheap and KiteGen would be profitable and competitive without being subsidized with taxpayer’s money. (That’s unfortunately rather uncommon in the renewable energy arena). In fact, electricity produced using KiteGen technology would be so cheap it could possibly drive nuclear plants out of the market!

 

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