High-altitude urban windpower: not just blue-sky thinking

Energy sources don’t come much cleaner than wind power, but there’s no way of deploying it in large urban areas, right? Well, not so; if you can get the turbines away from ground level, you not only avoid the problem of siting all those windmills but also get access to the much richer store of power that exists at higher altitudes.

The first rigorous, worldwide study of high-altitude wind power estimates that there is enough wind energy at altitudes of about 1,600 to 40,000 feet to meet global electricity demand a hundred times over.

The very best ground-based wind sites have a wind-power density of less than 1 kilowatt per square meter of area swept. Up near the jet stream above New York, the wind power density can reach 16 kilowatts per square meter. The air up there is a vast potential reservoir of energy, if its intermittency can be overcome.

Even better, the best high-altitude wind-power resources match up with highly populated areas including North America’s Eastern Seaboard and China’s coastline.

“The resource is really, really phenomenal,” said Cristina Archer of Cal State University-Chico, who co-authored a paper on the work published in the open-access journal Energies.”There is a lot of energy up there, but it’s not as steady as we thought. It’s not going to be the silver bullet that will solve all of our energy problems, but it will have a role.”

According to that article, there’s a handful of start-ups beavering away at making workable prototypes to take advantage of all that wind and promising their first sales in a year or so. It’ll be good to have another non-vaporware option on the renewable energy table, but I imagine any city that has a lot of aircraft traffic passing through isn’t going to be too keen on the idea…