How to Capture the Power of High-Altitude Winds

High altitude winds may have more than 100 times the energy needed to power civilization.  But as this video from KQED’s QUEST explains, capturing that power is going to take some very creative  solutions.

By Chris Bauer

A dreamer stares up into the sky, watches the clouds slowly pass by and ponders what could be. From da Vinci to Newton to the Wright brothers to the little kid down the street, sometimes there’s a fine line between the day-dreamer and the visionary. And now a group of innovative thinkers are looking at those same passing clouds in a whole new way.

Looking up at the jet stream, Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist from the Carnegie Institution of Global Ecology at Stanford University says, “We find that there’s more than 100 times the power necessary to power civilization in these high altitude winds.” 100 times the energy to power the world is going to get people’s attention.

The global need for clean energy is pushing scientists and engineers to search for new, untapped sources of energy. “To solve this problem we need a real revolution in our system of energy development,” continues Caldeira, “We need huge amounts of power, and the things that can provide huge amounts of power include fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas; nuclear power, solar power and wind.” The strongest and most consistent winds are found in the jet stream as high as 30,000 feet above the earth. But how do you harness the wind power from that high? Now the race is on to find the answer to that question.

It may seem pie-in-the-sky, but over 20 companies around the world are now working to develop technology to tap the strong and consistent power of high altitude wind. One company we profiled here on QUEST, Makani Power in Alameda, California, has received a $15 million grant from Google to build a wing concept that would autonomously fly in high circles, capturing energy with small turbines and sending the power down its tether. Other companies are exploring the use of kites, parachutes, balloons and other fanciful flying machines.

There is no shortage of skeptics and there are plenty of obstacles to hurdle before true high altitude wind energy can get off the ground. But still, it’s fun and interesting to stare up at the floating clouds and dare to dream.