Thinking big on a smaller scale

Two arguments I hear consistently raised against wind power are:

  • Sounds fine – until it’s not windy.
  • Sounds grand – but not in MY back yard kthxbai.

To take the second point first: let’s face it, we’re all NIMBYs. None of us really wants to have a humongous, dirty, smelly, ugly powerstation in our back yards. But we all want to use (more than our fair share) of the electrickery power these beasts generate. When it boils down to it, this is the crux of the problem we face.

As I stood outside last night, looking up at the sky, I noticed two things:

The first was that the air around me was completely still.

The other was that the clouds above were skidding past the moon at a tremendous rate of knots.

Putting these two together, I thought:

“Hmm… wind power.
Wind moves.
Wind turbines don’t.
… why not?”

From there it was a small step to the idea of mounting wind turbines onto airborne platforms. Perhaps gliders, or hydrogen or helium dirigibles? Such devices would sidestep both the NIMBY and the ‘today’s not windy’ problems at a stroke.

And then I thought:
“Why would such flying power-generators need to be big? If they were designed as smaller units, scaling up would be more easily manageable.”

Currently, in the UK, we’re facing an energy shortage in the next few years. It’s too late to build new power stations, those traditional projects are simply too big to complete in the timescale we have.

But maybe we have time to design and build a scaleable solution. Surely an alternative that uses free energy is a no-brainer.

Yes, yes, yes, it sounds crazy. But I always keep in mind that there are three stages to adoption of any new idea:

  1. That’s completely insane.
  2. Hmm… it might work…
  3. Well, duh, that’s obvious.
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About pendantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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2 Responses to Thinking big on a smaller scale

  1. gazelle says:

    Well, I think there are too many difficulties compared to other potential solutions, for airborne platforms to ever take off the ground (so to speak). For example:
    a) How to transfer the generated energy from the platforms to where it is needed.
    b) How to slow down the platform so that it does not move as fast as the wind (ever been in a hot air balloon? — there’s next to no wind).
    c) How to maintain the equipment at a reasonable cost.

    These difficulties are much less if we use existing solutions.
    a – Having multiple energy-generation methods (e.g. wind, solar, microhydro, geothermal) at the site it is needed, such as on every building, saves a fortune in infrastructure costs. The “what about base load” is handled by connection to a grid, and by storing energy (either in batteries, or by pumping water at the top of the hydro unit).
    b – Fixed-point turbines do not move with the wind, and it is this differential that makes it efficient.
    c – Maintenance is always an issue, and having ground- or building-based equipment is much easier to access than floating or orbiting equipment.

    I agree that the wind at the ground level can be zero and up a bit it can be a gale. Have you been on the roof of a skyscraper? One of the ideas I’ve seen is to mount hundreds of vertical-axis turbines up the side of high buildings, to take advantage of the massive updraughts.

    I like the left-field thinking, and hate to be a wet blanket, but in this case, I think your idea just won’t fly.

  2. pendantry says:

    Nice! Just the kind of smash-and-burn response I was hoping for. Thanks, Gazelle!

    I’m pretty sure you’re right, that this idea would never get off the ground. But the thing I like about it most is its scalability. I’m a firm believer in making the primary approach to the looming energy crisis one of reducing our energy consumption as a first step; in the Real World this has two problems: a) it’ll never happen because everyone thinks it’s everyone else’s responsibility to cut their power usage first, and b) if it were to succeed then the way we currently deal with energy requirements has decades-long time lag based on extrapolations of the current trend in (ever-increasing) power-consumption (which of course is why demand is destined to outstrip supply, because we humans are totally crap at planning ahead). A scaleable solution — ‘just in time’ power — would eliminate this lag.

    In my mind’s eye, if my crazy idea were to ever fly, we’d have flocks of bird-sized widgets. Let’s call them ‘ergbirds.’ These would be constructed using our miniaturisation smarts to make them small and light. They’d be coated in solar and/or infrared power collectors. Maybe they could ‘fly’ through water, too, to utilise ocean power.

    Ergbirds would have to be clever enough to avoid collisions, seek out areas of high winds, know when to return to base when their ‘rechargeable batteries’ (or, preferably, some other form of energy storage medium) needed discharging into the power grid. They would also ‘know’ when it was time for maintenance or upgrade, and return to base then (economies of scale would reduce maintenance costs). Intelligence of about the level of a slug — we can emulate that now.

    I hear what you say about a turbine needing to be tethered. Ergbirds would need a means of harvesting the power of the wind while it’s on the move… there must be some way of doing this. The power generated needn’t be much, nor very efficient: it would just need to be a surplus, since with a scaleable solution you’d just need more ergbirds to make up for the lack of efficiency. And of course, ergbird Mark IX would be a huge improvement on the original. Perhaps the Mark X would be able to tether itself in a gale. Power transfer could be managed by magnetism, maybe. Proof of principle in wireless power transmission in this way has recently been demonstrated.

    A big plus is that ergbirds would be cheap enough to produce that it would be feasible for individuals to buy them for their own power needs — a feature that I believe is sadly lacking in this era of reliance on State and Corporate (humongous) infrastructure development.

    Yep, it’s a flight of fancy. But I still think it’s not totally insane.

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