Electricity generated by giant kites could provide cheap, clean power to millions. Don’t believe it? Microsoft founder Bill Gates does. We meet David Ainsworth, one of the men behind the UK’s first kite power station.

They’ve inspired generations of children, to say nothing of all-round genius Leonardo da Vinci. Now, kites could provide a novel solution to the world’s renewable energy needs.

British start-up Kite Power Systems (KPS) has developed kites that pull cables to generate electricity more cheaply than wind turbines. Microsoft founder Bill Gates said there is a chance that kites could provide a “magic solution” to global energy needs.

“This low cost product can be deployed in deep water locations without complex installation,” says David Ainsworth, interim CEO at KPS. “As a result, they could have a radical impact on offshore wind throughout the world by the late 2020s.”

High and mighty: how KPS technology works

Tied to a reel – like a giant spool of thread − the kites soar in figures of eight as fast as 100mph. As a result, they pull cables, generating electricity. As one kite descends, the other rises, so electricity is generated continually.

Each system produces around 500kW of energy, enough to supply electricity to roughly 430 homes.

“As the drum rotates it generates hydraulic power, which is stored in accumulators,” says Ainsworth. “The accumulator pressure is discharged through a motor driving a generator. In addition, the rate of pressure release can be controlled to provide smooth electrical power.”

“The power stroked typically takes 40 seconds and the recovery 20 seconds. Moreover, having two kites means there is a generation overlap. Typically, the energy used on recovery is less than 5% of the generated power.”

“The kite weighs less than 20% of an equivalent rated horizontal axis wind turbine (HAWT) as well as producing higher yield per megawatt (MW). The biggest benefits will be seen in offshore wind, where the levelised cost of electricity for deep water sites will be around 50% of an HAWT.

The kites are more efficient since they capture untapped winds at high altitude. In addition, they are cheap to operate, can be connected to the grid and have little impact on the environment.

The kites are also easier to transport to remote locations than 50-60m-long wind turbine blades.

Shell, EON and Schlumberger invest in kite power

The project is funded to the tune of £5 million by Shell Technology Venture, EON and Schlumberger. KPS plans to open the UK’s first kite power plant in West Freugh in Scotland this summer.

“The 500kW system will be installed this summer and commissioned over the autumn,” confirms Ainsworth. “In addition, KPS plans to deploy the first onshore pilot arrays using the 500kW kite in 2019/2020 as well as building floating offshore arrays using a 3MW device by 2025.”

Other companies pioneering kite power include Dutch firm E-Kite. US start-up Makani Power has secured funding from the US Department of Energy and Google’s R&D project Google X.

Ainsworth believes kite power could be used to repower existing offshore systems as wind turbines become too old, typically after 20-25 years.

Want to read more about cutting-edge innovations in the field of wind energy? Read the latest edition of World Wind Technology.

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