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High-Altitude Wind Energy Could Be Harnessed by Kites

16 October 2017

The idea of tethered wind turbines that generate electricity from abundant and reliable high-altitude winds seems like a futuristic notion. But KAUST research, led by Georgiy Stechnchikov, has identified the most favorable areas for high-altitude wind-energy systems in the Middle East.

Color-coded map of the Middle East region to show areas with greatest high-altitude wind-energy potential. (Reproduced with permission from reference 1© 2017 Nature Publishing Group)Color-coded map of the Middle East region to show areas with greatest high-altitude wind-energy potential. (Reproduced with permission from reference 1© 2017 Nature Publishing Group)

The results confirm there is an abundant amount of wind energy up there that could feasibly be harnessed, bringing the possibility of high-altitude power generation a step closer.

"We are very enthusiastic about taking this work forward," said Udaya Gunturu, who studies atmospheric processes at KAUST, "Wind turbines on the Earth's surface suffer from the very stubborn problem of intermittent wind supply.”

This has led researchers and energy companies worldwide to look upwards and explore the possibilities of the strong and reliable winds at high altitudes. Flying a wind turbine on a kite, with electricity being delivered to the ground through the tether, may seem like an unlikely situation. But there are several companies worldwide that are already testing prototypes of these systems.

The developments attracted the attention of the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), which funded the KAUST research to explore the opportunities in the Middle East. Andrew Yip, the first author of the research paper, used this research as his Ph.D. topic.

The researchers used this information on wind strengths at different altitudes that were already available from NASA. They processed this raw data to identify the favorable areas for airborne wind-energy systems, and optimal heights at which the turbine would need to fly. They factored in daily and seasonal variations.

"Optimal altitudes for the turbines vary by region and with the time of year and time of day," said Yip. "In general, the abundance of the airborne wind-energy resources increases with altitude."

Tethered kites could potentially offer the flexibility to vary the altitude of the turbines as wind conditions change. Current technology would allow harvesting wind energy at heights of two to three kilometers, but there is a lot of wind even higher than that.

The researchers conclude that the favorable regions for high-altitude wind energy in the Middle East are over parts of Saudi Arabia and Oman. Their next step is to increase the resolution of their study.

"Our work may help Saudi Arabian wind-energy technology to leapfrog into the future and fulfill the Kingdom's Vision 2030 plan on the development of renewable energy resources," said Stenchikov.

A paper on this research was published in Scientific Reports.

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