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High-Altitude Winds Some 200 Times Weaker Than Previously Thought


High-altitude winds have been thought by some to be the ultimate energy source that will drive our needs in the future. However, recent calculations that researchers from the Max Planck Institute performed, reveal that these high winds contain some 200 times less energy than some people thought, and cited elementary physics in favor of that.

The driving force behind these winds is the fact that the Sun heats the Earth unequally at the poles and at the tropics, thus inducing a pressure difference in between. This pressure difference is actually directly proportional to the force of the winds.

The problem with high winds is not their high velocity, neither is their kinetic energy, but the fact that they don’t actually contain that much usable energy at all. Because they’re located some 7 to 16 kilometers from the ground, they encounter virtually little to no friction at all. Some researchers even say these winds are geostrophic, just because there’s so little friction.

“It is precisely this low energy requirement that limits the potential for using the jet streams as a source of renewable energy,” explains Axel Kleidon, head of the Independent Max Planck Research Group on Biospheric Theory and Modelling.

Kleidon’s research group has calculated the maximum rate at which wind energy can be taken from the global atmosphere, an found out that the theoretical limit would only be some 7.5 terawatts, versus the 200 times higher figure cited by previous studies. As a reference, all of the humankind has used 17 terawatts in 2010.

“If we used wind turbines to take 7.5 terawatts out of the atmosphere at the level of the jet streams, about 300 terawatts less energy would be generated in the atmosphere as a whole,” explains Lee Miller, lead author of the study. “This would have a drastic impact on temperature and weather.”

So basically what this study tells us is that whatever we may do with wind turbines still won’t be enough for us to power our greedy needs and, if we were to suck all of the power that exists in the upper atmosphere, it would be like stopping our planet’s own blood flow just to power up some toys – it’s a no-brainer that we’d kill our very own existence.

The ultimate solution still remains closely attached to solar power, which we will have to harvest more and more efficiently. Even that can be subjected to some discussion, since the heat coming from the sun is used by the planet’s own processes such as winds, and if we disturb the heating pattern by transforming it into electricity, then we may again be facing some dangers.

There have been businesses formed around the idea of harvesting these winds in recent years. To name a few that we’ve been talking about, there’s Magenn, Makani Power, or the “Blimp” turbine. NASA has even invested in high-altitude wind power last year, so the idea gathered lots of enthusiasts.

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  1. So what?

    MakaniPower and most of the other companies you list don’t care about this result. Because they are not going for what you define as High Altitude. 400m is the target. It is a good choice for an Airborne Wind Turbine because you double the availability at very low cost. Having wind power produce 60% of the time instead of 30% of the time is the goal- that allows a small network covering a range of locations to be up 100%.

    The goal is simply to get above the boundary layer that is slowed down by the surface, and high enough to avoid birds and noise complaints.

    MakaniPower should make wind power really cheap. The system weighs 10% or less than a traditional system, doesn’t even need a road to install. Unlike traditional tower based tubines, Makani can work in deep water offshore at almost no extra cost.


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