As supply chain costs rise, alternative designs have been more widely circulated on both sides of the Atlantic.
Elsewhere, World Wide Wind is prototyping floating offshore wind turbines in Norway, NIST researchers in the U.S. are using generative AI to optimise new offshore designs, and Katrick Technologies in Scotland is trialling wind “honeycombs” that eliminate the classic look altogether.
Meanwhile, major industry players like Siemens Energy have faced headwinds, forcing them to reach out for support and re-evaluate their financial targets.
This re-envisioning of the typical turbine is taking place against the backdrop of a growing demand for wind energy in the United Kingdom. As UK wind energy generation hit record highs in Q4, many hope that the country will steadily decrease its dependence on coal, oil and gas to power the grid with renewables.
But turbines, at least how we’re used to them, have largely looked the same for centuries. Can new designs shake it up?
Ancient uses of wind energy date as far back as 5,000 B.C., in civilisations and continents as diverse as China, Persia, the Netherlands, Scotland and Denmark. And ever since Professor James Blyth built his version in July 1887, turbines, as we’re used to them, involve blades, typically three, spinning around an axis.
Companies don’t typically add more due to drag, and they rarely slip down to two thanks to “gyroscopic precession”— something not great for stability, safety and energy generation.
This architecture evolved through the careful dance of balancing costs and efficiency. But a number of factors — including steep costs for the manpower and materials needed to construct these facilities — have made costs shoot up anywhere between 30 and 40%.
As a result, companies and countries are ready to experiment. Though for the most part, China helms the world in wind power, the U.S., UK, and Nordic nations have experimented with a variety of floating designs, from vertical pillars to sailboat-like concepts.
In the ocean, you don’t run into as many of the noise and social issues that typically plague wind power, and you can operate at a scale that, on land, doesn’t always work. “I usually say that whatever the question is, the answer is offshore wind,” says Esben Hegnsholt, Managing Director and Partner at Boston Consulting Group.
Indeed, for a technology design that’s instantly familiar, it’s surprising how many variations on the theme actually exist: Bladeless generators; urban art installations; bobbing spires at sea; micro-turbines; macro-turbines; those designed purely to be efficient, and those meant to fade away, invisible, into the background.
Of these many turbine variations, one of the most well-publicised is AirLoom Energy, backed in part by the Bill Gates-founded Breakthrough Energy. Rather than operating like a typical turbine, it sends spinning “wings” on a track into motion like planets orbiting the Sun.
(Photo credit: Airloom Energy)
Airloom promotes its cost as one-tenth of that of a regular turbine, as well as chopping costs for transport.
AirLoom Energy will rely on established partners but still wants to revitalise the industry. “We’re excited to change wind energy from the foundation up.”
In an interesting twist, some argue that AirLoom and companies like it shouldn’t reinvent the wheel; that effective, aerodynamic solutions already exist. Radical new wind generation techniques and design hype don’t always live up to reality, and we still picture turbines with three blades.
“Every year, the previous year’s crop disappears and is never heard from again,” says Michael Barnard, Chief Strategist at The Future Is Electric. In other words, could we be making too much fuss with the new designs just because they’re new, shiny, and, well, different?
But in the current climate, companies can’t really afford to continue with past tactics. With sharp interest rates, steadily rising costs, and tensions in supply chains, adds Albert Bielinko, some wind companies will very likely go bankrupt.
In the meantime, doing something — trialling, testing new designs — is arguably more admirable than idling as costs creep up. A year ago, AirLoom’s CEO Neal E. Rickner expressed similar optimism in a short post about the climate tech market. “Even in the current, unsettling market conditions,” he wrote, “there are boundaries being pushed, emissions being reduced, and unicorns being created.”
Humans might be wired to want the next best version of software, a product, an emotion, a technology or even a turbine. But if AirLoom can pull off its plans to pilot and commercialise the new technology, the startup just might be wind energy’s next big bright spot.