Drop Your Blades and Spread Your Wings

A Dutch-based company and spin-off from the Technical University in Delft set foot on Australian soil. Why? A combination of endless space, excellent wind, very high per capita emissions, solid infrastructure and engineering expertise make Australia a perfect extension to that tiny and windy country in the North of Europe. Ampyx Power’s core innovation is in software as opposed to hardware. They are recognised within the industry as a leader – the potential is enormous and the race is on. I caught up with Damien Reardon, who is responsible for Ampyx Power’s business activities in Australia.

Community Involvement or Ignorance?

It’s interesting to see how worldwide governments respond differently to the deployment of wind energy. In the Netherlands some find that the government is pushing the deployment of wind turbines too much to meet the renewable energy targets set for 2023, whereas in Australia the opposite occurs. The conventional wind industry in Australia has faced considerable political risk.

It remains uncertain whether the situation will improve under the Turmbell government. However, the message was clean and unequivocal under the Abbott government. They either didn’t understand or believe in the potential of wind energy. They actually scared away foreign investment in wind energy projects scattered all over Australia.

To date, multiple wind projects are ready to go everywhere, but unfortunately nothing happens. In recent times, the only place where such projects get a go-ahead is in the Australian Central Territory (ACT). And that’s only because the state government has been willing to lock in the cheap power they produce early. Other state governments are showing signs of following suit.

When looking at the Netherlands, the Dutch have always been big proponents of wind energy and still are. For decades, windmills have harnessed the power to drain the wetlands, grind grain for food and many other industrial purposes. However, these days the pristine large wooden and stone windmills have been replaced by modern wind turbines that spin to generate renewable electricity.

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Isn’t it beautiful?!

One essential difference between the traditional and the modern ones is the degree of acceptance. Where historic windmills reflect beauty of Dutch landscapes, the modern wind turbine faces a “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) syndrome.

For such a small country as the Netherlands with roughly 17 million inhabitants, it actually makes sense that local communities suffer from the NIMBY-syndrome. Some of these modern wind turbines are literally placed in people’s backyards. However, when you think of the spacious Australia, one of the largest countries of the world with a population of only 22 million, you wouldn’t consider the NIMBY-syndrome to be a real concern.

In a previous article on wind energy in Australia, I highlighted the importance of community involvement in the process of deploying a wind farm. It’s a key factor to succeed and Ampyx Power couldn’t agree more.

Yes, it is indeed a matter of communicating properly and engaging with local communities early. Above all though, it is a matter of respect and honesty.” – Damien Reardon

The Dutch Wind Energy Association ensures that local communities get compensated and participate in the benefits of wind farms. This is starting to happen in Australia too.

The Australian government is spending $3.3 million to study “wind turbine sickness”. The study investigates whether living near wind turbines can make people sick. It’s a remarkable move that’s been criticised from different angles.

And what about the negative health impacts of fossil fuel production capacity, such as coal-fired power plants, on local communities? Is it because the Australian government is desperately trying to prop up coal mining or do they really think that wind energy potentially has a severely negative health impact on local communities?

You know what? Maybe they should look at different forms of wind energy. There is a new form of wind energy on the rise with an enormous potential stemming from airborne wind technology. 

The Rise of Airborne Wind

The potential for airborne wind industry started to gain traction around the mid-20th century and truly took a rapid acceleration in the past decade. This industry has its origins in kiting. The power by itself is already thousands of years old, but in this application it’s radically different. Airborne wind basically means generating energy via an object that flies through the air. In doing so these systems aim to capture wind energy at significantly increased altitudes compared to wind turbines.

“It might not look like it from afar, however modern conventional wind turbines are highly sophisticated machines and a great deal of engineering goes into every one. They might appear relatively simplistic and I think they are, but the aerodynamic engineering behind it is cutting-edge. I think I’ve read that a third of the world aerodynamics engineers supposes to work in wind energy. This is not just another industry.” – Damien Reardon

It isn’t easy anymore to compete on price with modern onshore and offshore wind turbines. Many companies compete to build better turbines to satisfy a very large and growing global market, but in 30 years there has actually been very little conceptual innovation. The vast majority are the typical white turbine with three blades that everyone is familiar with. However, looks like this may be about to change as wind energy prepares to go digital.

To date, about 50 companies in various sizes operate and test the airborne wind technology worldwide in different forms. The origins of Ampyx Power can be found in a research group set up in 1996 by the dedicated professor and former astronaut Wubbo Ockels at the Technical University of Delft, the Netherlands. He was a pioneer and true believer in the potential of renewable energy. A few years ago, Ampyx Power was the first to develop a working generator with a pumping glider and now they’re about to lead the way to the first commercial unit.

Airborne systems absolutely create new opportunities for generating electricity. Compared to a conventional turbine, airborne systems require a fraction of the materials and they can access, in 3D space, the stronger more constant winds available at altitude.

A Floating Aircraft Attached to a Cord 

The mechanism of Ampyx Power’s airborne system knows many different variables. The core of the system relies on a ridged autonomous aircraft, a so-called PowerPlane, that is tethered to a generator on the ground.

The Powerplane produces lift by flying figure-of-8 patterns, reeling out the tether. As the tether reaches the end, the PowerPlane automatically dives down, loses altitude and starts over again. Every time the tether gets reeled out and in on the winch, the generator it is connected to produces electricity. Awesome!

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The PowerPlane goes up and down, round and round and over and over again.

“Takes a bit to get your head around, but the concept is actually quite intuitive. Think of it as a combination of a large stationary rowing machine and a highly sophisticated, fully autonomously controlled kite. Actually deploying a system like ours was next to impossible as little as 10 years ago. Rapid advances in micro-processor technologies mean that what was once only possible in theory is now entirely feasible. If you like – Intel has enabled Airborne Wind Energy to leap off the pages of scientific journals and into the real world. The potential is immense. – Damien Reardon

All the major physical components of a PowerPlane system (airfcraft, tether, winch, generator) have been proven in other industries. Combining them such that they produce cheap, reliable electricity however, has never previously been attempted. Designing autonomous automated PowerPlanes that benefit from innovations in industrial robotics, therefore, is a sophisticated exercise in systems integration. The back end of the system is relatively simplistic and relies on the same technologies as conventional wind.

Ampyx Power aims for utility-scale systems than can be rolled out rapidly to replace coal and gas fired power plants, complementing solar, other renewables and storage to create an entirely better energy supply system than we have today. There is a huge potential both on- and offshore!

Aim for the Cheapest Electricity

To date, wind farms are the cheapest new build generation option in Australia, undercutting both coal and gas. They do require an upfront ‘subsidy’ (which in reality is a mechanism to level the playing field against coal), however even an Abbott government report found that in actual fact, the net effect of the ‘subsidy’ on electricity bills was negligible – in some instances even positive. Is a subsidy still a subsidy when the person paying for it doesn’t have to pay anything?

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Look at the difference in size between a wind turbine and the Ampyx Power PowerPlane system. It’s a fraction of the size…

One of the key opportunities for Ampyx Power is that in order to produce the same annual output as a wind turbine, their calculations indicate that they only need about 10% of the materials by weight. This translates into significantly cheaper installation and production costs.

“Wind turbine manufacturers constantly strive to access the stronger, less turbulent and more constant wind at higher altitudes, but they wrestle with the increased cost of components and foundations as they do so. We can obviously access wind at much higher altitudes, in 3D space mind you, but in a more efficient, far less intrusive and most importantly, cost effective way. Our objective is quite simple. To supply systems that generate the world’s cheapest electricity, whether you include the costs of externalities or not.” – Damien Reardon

One of the challenges for any form of utility-scale clean energy in Australia is to obtain a PPA. In Australia, three big utilities dominate. However, assuming no changes in Australian specific or global carbon policy, at the moment it is debatable whether shifting headlong toward renewables in their best short term interest given it pushes their existing fossil fuel based generation capacity out of the market, along with the possibility of accessing technologies like Airborne Wind in the near future. They recognise the inevitable is not far away, but each is reluctant to be the first to jump.

Australia will be the next location to upgrade the testing of the system. At the moment, a 5,5-meter wingspan aircraft is being tested in the North of Holland. However, Australia will prepare itself for a 12-meter wingspan aircraft and eventually a 30 – 40-meter wingspan aircraft that with a capacity of approximately 2 MW.

Ampyx Power is well aware that new things and new technologies are often treated with suspicion until they prove themselves. Airborne Wind Energy will be no exception. With respect to the safety case:

“People are invariably intrigued when shown pictures of what scaled up versions of the technology will look like. Asking questions about safety is completely natural. Irrespective of the economic case, we have been, and will continue to be, relentlessly focused on safety. There are some subtle differences of course, but the reality is that flying aircraft is nothing new.” – Damien Reardon

To get a better picture of how peaceful the PowerPlane goes round and round, just have a view from the ground!

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