High Hopes for Renewable Energy with Altaeros

Renata Ballesteros-Lopez

 Using Alaska’s Assets to Spark Innovation

What are the most common obstacles to doing business in rural Alaska?

Remoteness, harsh weather, and lack of infrastructure are almost always on top of the list. But for Altaeros Energies, an MIT wind energy start-up, those were some of the top reasons they chose Alaska to develop their new invention: the Buoyant Airborne Turbine, aka, the BAT.

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Wind energy generation as we know has numerous difficulties: its infrastructure is costly, turbines often occupy valuable land, and wind potency is fluctuating and unreliable. Altaeros’ founders sought to overcome those problems in 2010 with a new type of turbine, one that could capture the steady high altitude winds and that could be installed in less than 24 hours anywhere. Fitting a turbine in a highly resistant helium-filled shell provided an alternative.

The BAT can reach altitudes of up to 2,000 feet above ground to harness the strongest winds, which allows it to generate twice the power of a standard wind turbine with minimum ground interference and significantly less infrastructure. High-strength tethers hold the BAT steady and transmit the electricity to the ground, so it can safely survive 100+ mph winds.  The system can additionally dock itself autonomously on its ground station in the case of severe weather, where it can continue to produce power. The BAT can also lift other equipment high into the air, potentially providing internet and telephone accessibility in the areas it serves.

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Some critics have voiced their skepticism to the scalability and resourcefulness of the project, but many investors, most recently including the massive SoftBank Corporation, have supported the multimillion project. The Alaska Energy Authority’s Emerging Energy Technology Fund awarded Altaeros a t $750,000  grant in early 2014 to carry out the first pilot trial for an eighteen-month period in Fairbanks (source). Since Altaeros’ target market are remote communities and disaster areas, passing the test of Alaska’s inclement weather and extreme conditions could bring the project to a whole new level.

Moreover, Alaska could easily become Altaeros’ number one client if the project proves successful. Though the average residential energy prices in the state are 19.86 cents per kilowatt-hour, electricity generation in rural areas can cost as much as $1/kWh. Even with the aid of the Power Cost Equalization Program, residents can still end up paying pay up to 35 cents/kWh (Alaska Business Monthly 2014, “Lowering the Cost of Rural Energy”). Altaeros expects to deliver power for about 18 cents/kWh with installation costs a third lower than that of traditional wind turbines. Though the pilot program is still in the permitting stages with Golden Valley Electric Association and other entities, the company plans to have a  turbine airborne this year.

The access to cheap, clean power could be revolutionary not only for Alaskan villages, but also to remote areas all over the planet. That is not even considering the possibility of cheap access to internet and cellular service. Altaeros’ project could greatly raise the Alaskan profile in the field of renewables, but, more importantly, it is a project that is rethinking the state’s characteristic harshness as an opportunity and an asset rather than a weakness or a threat.

For more information, high‐resolution photos, and a demonstration video of the BAT, visit www.altaerosenergies.com.

 

 

Renata Ballesteros-Lopez is a researcher at the Center for Economic Development. She was born and raised in Mexico City, but has been an Alaska resident since 2005. She holds B.A.’s from the University of Alaska Anchorage on International Studies and German Language and Literature.