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Weekly Column

Oh, and We Also Saved the World: Google's Energy Plan

Status: [CLOSED] comments (149)
By Robert X. Cringely

A funny thing happened the other day on my way to buy a MiG-23 supersonic jet fighter: I bumped into Google's plan to change the way we generate electricity and, by doing so, alter for the better both global warming and the balance of world geopolitical power. So as often as I criticize them, let me also be the first to nominate Brin, Page, and Schmidt for their Nobel Peace Prizes, not that they need the money.

I was shopping for the MiG-23 because, of course, I need one to launch rockets to the Moon for Team Cringely (HUGE announcements about that are coming in next week's column, by the way). Team members have politely pointed out to me that there are other ways of air launching our rockets — ways that might be cheaper and less environmentally damaging than blasting to 80,000 feet in less than four minutes in a plane that's burning one gallon of kerosene PER SECOND. On the other hand, punching such a big hole in the sky sounds wonderfully fun to me and noisy, too.

To more sensible folk there is a strong argument that we ought to launch our Team Cringely rockets from hydrogen- (not helium) filled balloons at a cost of less than $500 per launch compared to the MiG's average $7,500. Not only is launching from a balloon well proven and cheaper, it also leaves a carbon footprint so small as to be invisible. Not so the MiG. Of course the MiG is all-weather (the balloon is not) and the MiG mission can be aborted while that rocket hanging from a balloon is going either into space or into the ocean. Can you tell I still prefer the MiG?

Another team member suggested a way to loft our rockets that to him seemed even better than balloons — kites. Specifically, he had in mind tensile wing kites rather like powered parachutes and paragliders. This team member led me through his research, which is the basis for the column you are reading. I don't actually think this stuff up myself: people tell me what to write.

What's cool about these tethered tensile wings, he explained, is that they can be designed in such a way that no aircraft fuselage is needed and yet they can lift (vertically, straight from the ground, no runway even required!) enormous weights. And I mean ENORMOUS weights, like a thousand tons. A fully loaded Boeing 747-400 weighs about 400 tons, so a THOUSAND tons would change the nature of airfreight.

But there's an even better application for this technology than airfreight, he explained, electric power generation. Build a gigantic tethered tension wing and power it with electric motors mounted in the leading edge of the wing. Send the electricity to run these motors up the tether, itself. The wing will take off vertically and once it is at the end of its rope, so to speak, can be made to circle thousands, or even tens of thousands, of feet off the ground without a pilot or any sort of crew.

Remember from your ground school days that wind tends to increase with altitude. Once aloft, circling in the stiff breeze a few thousand feet in the air, it should be possible during most daylight hours to just turn off the electric motors and get them running as generators, taking energy out of the wind. This would be regenerative air braking.

To my knowledge this idea of using a tethered kite to generate power was first put forth back in 2003 by Pete Lynn, a mechanical engineer and second-generation kite designer from New Zealand. He described his work back then in an extensive post on Google Groups as well as on his own web page. (That page is no longer directly available online, but in this week's links we've managed to recover that page thanks to the Internet Archive's WayBack Machine.)

Lynn's explanations in 2003 and 2004 were very clear and the implications of his work even clearer: this was probably the best way yet to extract energy from the wind — far better than more traditional windmills.

The problem with wind power is that much of the time there isn't enough of it available to even justify energizing the alternators attached to the large windmills used in wind farms. Unless the wind speed is over, say, 10 miles per hour, it isn't worth running the windmills at all. And above some speed on the order of 40 mph, it again isn't worth the effort, this time because of fear that high winds will damage the windmills — windmills sometimes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

But power-generating tension kites are different, as Lynn so ably explained: "the numbers strongly infer that such a wind turbine system can produce power for around a fifth to a tenth the cost of current generation systems, depending on site costs. This is roughly US 0.5 cents a kilowatt hour, with the likelihood that this will reduce further with mass production."

Five tenths of a cent per kilowatt-hour is VASTLY cheaper than the average retail price was for electricity anywhere in the U.S. in 2005, where electricity costs ran as high as 12 cents per kilowatt-hour in California and 14 cents per kilowatt-hour in the state of New York. So even though the kits would have to be all new construction and the old coal, gas, and oil-fired power plants mothballed or dismantled, the payback period for doing so would be measured in months, not years or decades as most such capital expenses are today. Today, with energy costs even higher, the payback would be even quicker.

Getting the cost of wind-power production so low depends on a couple of factors — building kites that cost very little for the power they generate and allowing them to harvest energy from a larger slug of airspace than is used by the big ground-based windmills employed in most wind farms.

"The trick is that the propeller is operating at the speed of the airplane, which is many times greater than that of the true wind speed," wrote Lynn. "At an overall lift to drag ratio of ten the air plane speed is ten times that of the true wind, with power proportional to wind speed cubed, the propeller can have a thousandth the swept area of a comparable wind turbine for the same power. This makes for a very compact and effective unit, it is important to exploit this apparent wind directly as it allows for much higher specific speed of the propeller and generating unit, (no gearing)... Line length can actually scale with size, somewhat, a 100MW unit might optimally have around a 1000m line. "

Such wind kites would be cheaper to build than current windmills because their structural efficiency is so high, according to Lynn. In fact the weight of such a kite turbine might be only one percent that of a comparable windmill.

According to Lynn's figures, then, to completely replace the one million megawatts of electricity generated in the U.S. annually by a total of 16,000 generators of various types would require 10,000 of those 100-megawatt tethered flying wings.

That's not many kites at all — enough to require approximately 3,600 square miles of territory, or about the size of Puerto Rico.

At this point the figures begin to run together and I feel like Dirty Harry wondering if he's correctly counted the number of bullets in his .44 Magnum. But even if the numbers are off by a factor of 10, such flexible-wing wind generators would mark a huge advancement in renewable energy.

Enter Google, stage left.

Pete Lynn no longer works in New Zealand. Today he works in Emeryville, CA at a company called Makani Power, which is developing exactly the sort of power-generating kites Lynn envisioned six years ago. Go to the people section of Makani's website and you'll see the healthiest bunch of windsurfer/engineers imaginable, including Pete Lynn, who actually seems to play a minor role in the company.

Google is Makani Power's major investor, having put $10 million into the company back in 2006. If Makani makes it possible to convert a huge percentage of American power generating capability to wind, it will be because of Google. If a commensurate amount of carbon dioxide is not released into the atmosphere as a result of this conversion, that too will be Google's fault. And if the conversion leads to lessened demand for Middle Eastern oil and even a slight change in the strategic importance of that part of the world, possibly reducing tensions among nations, blame Google.

The unanswered question is "Why?"

It is rare for a public corporation to do more than token philanthropy and completely unknown for one to catalyze what could be such a fundamental change in how we live just to save some money and save the environment. Google can do it because Google is making huge profits. But Microsoft makes huge profits, too, and Microsoft has never done anything like this.

I can only conclude, then, that Google must be grossly mismanaged.


Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (149)

I recall an excellent series of articles in The New Yorker some years back.

Story of the Aereon, a combination aerodyne / aerostat a.k.a. hybrid airship.

Great image at:

Rob Lake | Oct 20, 2007 | 3:02AM

Nice article, but the gratuitous shot at Microsoft at the end was unnecessary. I suggest you do some research on the work being done by the Gates Foundation:

Vince | Oct 23, 2007 | 8:41AM

The comparison of Google and Microsoft wasn't gratuitous.

The Gates Foundation isn't Microsoft, and Microsoft isn't the Gates Foundation.

So Google funds forward-looking projects and the Gates Foundation does also.

BillD | Oct 25, 2007 | 10:26AM