Technology that uses flying drones to generate electricity from wind is getting a boost from the German utility E.ON, which is backing a test project that may show if it can help cut the costs of producing power offshore. The machines stay airborne like kites to tap the energy of high-altitude wind currents. The force of the wind would push forward the drones, which would tug at a cable anchored to drive a power turbine. The technology still is in its early stages, with a handful of pilot projects around the world, including one bought up by Alphabet Inc. in 2013.
“E.ON has been looking into airborne wind technologies for five years, and we believe it has true game-changing potential,” said Frank Meyer, a senior vice-president at the utility. “It supports one of our overall targets to drive down the cost of renewable energy, and also allowing production of renewable energy at locations where it is currently not economically and technically feasible.” E.ON believes the industry could take off in the first half of the 2020s, according to spokesman Markus Nitschke. The company is planning to be an early adopter of the technology, he said by e-mail. Airborne energy is projected to be cheaper than the mainstream form of offshore wind power if it is commercialized, partly because it doesn’t use as much material.
Foundations and towers for traditional wind turbines make up about 30% of the capital required to install the equipment offshore, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Moving into deeper waters further off the coast will increase these costs, although the windier conditions may balance this out by driving the turbines more often.The drones are also expected to have a higher capacity factor because they fly higher where the winds are stronger, meaning they would produce power more often, according to Udo Zillmann, head of the Airborne Wind Energy Industry Network. “Based on tests by E.ON, the capacity factor is about 70%,” Zillmann said. “Operating offshore wind parks are less than 50%. Based on that and the lower development costs, the end goal could be to halve the cost of offshore wind energy.”
E.ON is working with Ampyx Power, a Dutch developer, on the project. E.ON will build and operate a demonstration site for airborne wind energy in northwestern Ireland, which Ampyx will use for its current trial and the next version of its machine, which it hopes will be commercialized. The company expects to start testing by mid-2018. E.ON wants multiple companies to use the site eventually. The German utility previously invested in another airborne wind energy developer known as Kite Power Systems, or KPS. Last December, the utility, Schlumberger Ltd. and Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s venture fund jointly put £5 million ($6.2 million) into the UK company. “While in principle we are technology-agnostic, we consider this cooperation with Ampyx Power a major step in our efforts to take a leading role in furthering the promising emerging airborne wind energy sector,” Meyer said.