The Big Idea: Floating Windmills

When you see them—either in paintings, in photographs, or up close and personal, you might ask yourself “What was Don Quixote thinking?” but if you think windmills are imposing, consider for a moment floating windmills!

This is just clever.

Image from Altaeros Energies

What a lot of people take for granted, even on a day when there is a light, steady breeze, is the power of wind. A windmill of any make can illustrate what a strong breeze can do. The problem is that at ground level, the wind is kind of erratic. So much power can be harnessed from wind, but to tap into that power you need to go up a thousand feet or so. At that altitude, the wind becomes steady. If you have you ever flown kites, you know. Once you get a kite up to an altitude of a thousand feet, it’s a steady wind flow.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get a windmill to that height?

Well, this company—Altaeros Energies—has come up a windmill that floats in the air.  What they do, they have a helium balloon that is tethered with a wire; and within the balloon they have curved blades that catch the wind.  So inside of the axis of this balloon, you not only have these specifically-designed rotor blades, you also have a generator. The rotations generate electricity, and the electricity is sent down the tether. The tether itself is a massive conductive wire, sending the electricity down to a power relay or battery. Altaeros Energies believes they can actually get ten times as much wind power out of these floating windmills as compared to ground-based ones. The first model will generate 10 kilowatts of electricity and float at an altitude of about 330 meters or roughly a thousand feet, roughly twice the height of a normal windmill. Altaeros wants to go actually higher than that.

Image from Altaeros Energies

There is the obvious drawback of bringing the balloon down every six months to recharge the helium as the gas seeps out through the plastic; but considering regular maintenance on ground-based windmills, it’s cost-effective. Altaeros also have plans for more portable units that you can carry out into remote areas—they would conceivably fit in a backpack—then you inflate and launch them. So you could actually generate electricity in remote locations. The possibilities for airborne windmills are not limited to land launches either. These floating windmills could be launched out above the water, providing power without disturbing the ecosystem of the world’s oceans while tapping into the open water’s wind streams.

I think this is just a darn clever idea.





shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratford University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.

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