Wind turbines keep getting bigger: Each blade can be longer than a football field, and one offshore turbine recently installed in China is as tall as a 50-story building. Making the base to hold up a standard turbine can take 40 truckloads of concrete.
The scale makes the technology expensive to build and maintain. But a startup called Airloom is shrinking the size and cost of wind power by fundamentally rethinking the design.
[Photo: Airloom Energy]
In a field near the small town of Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, a prototype shows how the new tech works. Instead of three large blades on a single tower, 82-foot-high poles hold up a track with 33-foot-long “wings” that are attached vertically. As the wind blows, the wings travel around the track and generate power. “Instead of flying in a circle, that blade is flying across the track and generating a mechanical force just like the blade of wind turbine turns a gearbox in the center,” says Neal Rickner, who recently joined the company as CEO.
Typical wind turbines are huge, he says, because having giant blades means that the tips of those blades can go faster and produce more energy. But the new design can achieve the same effect with fewer parts. “We have a relatively simple structure to support what is essentially the tip of the blade of the wind turbine,” Rickner says.
Using less material means lower capital cost—the design is less than a tenth of the cost of a traditional turbine—and it’s also less expensive to install. Putting a traditional wind turbine in place can require a crane so large that it needs a crane of its own; just delivering a massive crane to a wind farm can cost $50,000. The components of the new system can be delivered more easily, making it possible to add wind power in places that would have been too challenging to access in the past. All the parts fit on a standard tractor-trailer.
[Photo: Airloom Energy]
Airloom’s equipment can be installed on farm fields, with crops growing underneath. It can also sit next to roads near power lines so that less wiring is needed to connect back to the grid. It should be able to produce more energy than a standard wind farm on the same amount of land, because traditional wind turbines need to be spaced farther apart. The final cost of producing the energy may be a third of the cost of other wind power.
The layout may mean that it’s safer for birds and bats than other wind turbines, though the company hasn’t yet finished environmental impact studies. The lower profile also makes it less visible. “If you’re a mile away, you can’t see it,” Rickner says. That could theoretically help overcome one of the common objections from communities that fight new wind farms.
Airloom, which recently raised seed funding in a round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, is still at an early stage but plans to build a pilot project by 2025. By 2026 or 2027, it plans to build a commercial demonstration connected to the grid. The team wants to work with other players in the wind industry to scale up more quickly.
“We’re not going to try to disrupt this from the outside,” Rickner says. “We’re actually going to try to disrupt this with partners from the industry who see that we can be lower cost and open up siting opportunities.”