Do not be confused, this is not a video on solar panels, you clicked on the right thumbnail. But, solar panels are a marvel, right? One of the neatest things about them is that they can be used almost anywhere, from big farms, to residential spaces and anything in between. If only we could make other renewables, like wind power, as versatile. Well that’s exactly what a company called AirLoom Energy is trying to do, they claim they’ve developed a radically different kind of wind energy device. One that’s much cheaper, more flexible, and has the backing of Bill Gates. Given his cleantech investing success rate, I’ll let you decide if that’s a badge or honor, or a sign that this device is all hot air. How does Airloom work? And is their radically different wind turbine design going to change the game?
Inspired by his time windsurfing, AirLoom Energy co-founder Robert Lumley began sketching out this novel wind energy generator almost a decade ago.1 The result is a wind power device that looks more like a clothesline or kinetic sculpture than the turbines you’re used to seeing across the country. But how does it work? A cable runs in a track on top of a series of 25-meter (82 foot) tall poles arranged in an oval. Put a pin in that oval idea for later. Anyway, the vertically oriented, 10-meter (33-foot) blades are attached to the cable. They intercept the wind as it travels down both the home and the backstretch of the cable’s track. The blades move around the track, generating torque which is then translated into energy and sent to the grid.234 You know the drill.
Now, an 82-by-33 foot track sounds massive, but it’s small compared to a standard horizontal-axis wind turbine (HAWT).5 Most HAWTs operating at the moment are taller than the Eiffel Tower, and China just launched an offshore turbine 50 stories tall!55 Why so big? Simply put, bigger blades capture more energy, and taller towers allow for bigger blades. Plus, they elevate those blades up to where the air currents are strong and consistent, which is very important for energy production.6 However, the AirLoom device side steps those big parts — it’s long, low to the ground, and transportable. They also claim their device is modular, with the length and height of track being customizable. These features should allow their device to be deployed to places where bigger turbines just can’t fit.
That said, the most exciting part of the AirLoom device is the alleged cost savings. Large turbines are expensive to manufacture, ship, install and maintain, making for a large levelized cost of energy (LCOE). That’s a calculation of an energy producer’s lifetime costs measured against how much juice it makes (but I’m not talking orange juice). If the AirLoom device works as promised it could radically lower wind energy’s high LCOE costs, maybe by as much as 66%.7 For reference the current LCOE on a wind farm is about $0.038/kWh, AirLoom claims they can do it for $0.013/kWh.2
Does it actually work?
Of course, that’s a pretty big “if,” accompanied by some “too good to be true”-sounding numbers. How does this (relatively) small device make as much energy as a HAWT?
With a little bit of airbending trickery. By running their airfoils in that oval rather than a circle, AirLoom claims they alter the math behind “swept area,” that’s the area that the blades of a turbine sweep through as they extract energy from the air. As we mentioned earlier, the bigger the area, the more efficient the turbine. However, that necessitates bigger turbines and bigger blades, which limits where turbines can be deployed.8 AirLoom’s swept area is a function of track length, as opposed to the radius of a HAWT’s blades. Where your average HAWT gets maximum torque from the fast moving tips of its blades but not much from the bits closest to the hub, the full length of each of the AirLoom system’s blades contribute to hauling the whole loop around.3 Essentially, instead of a few large blades on a vertical structure, that energy capture potential is distributed across many smaller blades moving horizontally, or so AirLoom claims.8
Neat, but has it been tested? Does it actually work? The answer is a very, very tentative “yes.” AirLoom has a 50-kilowatt testing device setup in Wyoming, and though testing has just begun everything seems to be going according to plan. AirLoom just secured $4 million in seed funding, spearheaded by Breakthrough Energy Ventures.9 With the early tests going well they’re preparing to move forward with a 1MW prototype, with plans to eventually scale up to the 2.5MW ‘real deal.’10 But, at least at the time of writing this video, I can’t find any evidence or even claims that third party tests have been conducted, which certainly is cause for raising a brow.
Is it practical?
We’ll return to this lack of outside assessment in a moment, but first, theoretically, let’s assume AirLoom really has cracked the code, and made a wind energy device as powerful as a HAWT for a fraction of the initial cost and LCOE. How are they doing this, and why use it over a regular turbine?
AirLoom proposes using readily sourced materials and parts to make sure there’s minimal supply chain, shipping or manufacturing headaches. These parts are small and are made from widely available materials, so they can be manufactured in non-specialist factories. You’re talking about small airfoils, metal structures and tracks versus aircraft carrier sized wind turbine blades. Combine that with their device’s relatively small size and they claim manufacturing their device will cost just 10% of an equivalent HAWT’s price tag.25
Then there’s the shipping costs. This one is a big one. The sheer size of wind turbine blades mean it can be a logistical nightmare to physically ship them (usually from China) to their final destinations. Plus, it’s very expensive to ship heavy things, like, y’know, giant carbon fiber blades and steel pylons. And goofy as it might seem, tight turns, tunnels and bridges can all become huge turbine transit problems. It can take over a year of planning and 10 separate loads to move just one turbine into place.1112 Meanwhile, AirLoom can fit an entire 2.5 megawatt track inside a standard tractor-trailer.3
The smaller, modular size has other alleged benefits too. We mentioned previously how the device can be adjusted in both length and height to fit a larger variety of sites, including places where traditional turbines just can’t go. While we usually mean places other turbines physically can’t be deployed, it might also allow us to build wind energy generators in places they aesthetically can’t be deployed either.
A lot of wind power projects get canceled because people REALLY don’t want a big turbine in their line of sight.13 For example, New Jersey just lost two offshore wind farms because residents didn’t want the turbines to ruin their beachy views.14 And they’re far from the only example, despite wind energy’s broad support and approval ratings, people hate having ’em in their backyard.15 The smaller, shorter profile should make AirLoom’s device — how to politely say this — NIMBY-resistant? And while we’re talking about offshore wind, AirLoom claims their device works great for both on and offshore purposes.2 Though again, they haven’t presented any information about what this might look like. How much more feasible is it to build a long wind track instead of a single platform? I have questions.
Back to cost savings. Taking into account the cheaper materials, manufacturing, shipping, and installation, Airloom calculates that its wind farms can be built for less than 25% of the cost to build a conventional wind project, just $0.21/W compared to the standard $1.25/W.213 Add in the lower maintenance costs, and you start to see why AirLoom’s projected LCOE is so low. LCOE varies from site to site, but with an LCOE at just $0.013/kWh, by some accounts wind could surpass solar as the cheapest form of energy generation.16
This is the point where we have to get real. Call me cynical, but the lack of third party testing is a stark and serious red flag for right now. AirLoom has only recently come out of “Stealth Mode,” so it’s possible these tests are on their way (I would assume they are). However, until some national labs have vetted their work and some economists who know their way around greentech have given them a thumbs up, we just won’t really know how well it works or how cost effective it is in the real world. That’s a bigger deal!
And I hate to say it, but historically speaking, there’s good reason to be critical of AirLoom’s device. They’re not the only group to try to revolutionize the wind energy sector with smaller or cheaper devices: there’s Sheerwind Invelox, Saphon Energy, Transpower, and many, many others. All of these options looked good on paper (more or less), but so far none have proved to be viable.171819 Disconcertingly, Transpower’s device looks an awful lot like AirLoom’s, and they fell apart in the 1980s.20 But that was a long time ago and may have been a timing issue.
There’s also some conventional “wind engineering wisdom” reasons to doubt AirLoom’s design. As we touched on earlier there’s a lot of reasons turbines have been getting taller. Tall masts and big blades give you a certain kind of efficiency and consistency that anything lower to the ground is going to struggle to match. Turbulence is a major issue for wind turbines too, especially small turbines, since it can reduce a turbine’s annual energy output by 15% to 25%.21. How do you get away from turbulence? Unfortunately for small and low-lying turbines, you go above it. The general rule of the thumb is to install a wind turbine on a tower with the bottom of the rotor blades at least 30 feet (9 meters) above any obstacle that is within 300 feet (90 meters) of the tower.21 So, even if AirLoom truly can make radically cheaper turbines, it won’t matter if the turbines aren’t able to consistently and effectively generate energy due to weak winds or turbulence.17 I haven’t even touched on some questions that came up with my team and I around things like dirt buildup and friction with the track system over time. How will that impact performance? There’s a lot of open questions.
To be fair, AirLoom is in the early stages, so third party tests are likely to come. And with the backing of Gates and a promising round of seed funding, AirLoom has a solid financial base that might help them navigate some of the upcoming challenges.10 They say they’re going to build a pilot project in 2025, with plans to build a commercial demonstration connected to the grid by 2026 or 2027, so we shouldn’t have to wait very long to see if their device actually works or not.3 Despite some of my skepticism, innovation does happen, and maybe AirLoom really does have the magic formula for cheaper, better wind power.
At the same time, the sector is also littered with devices that sounded good on paper but just couldn’t work in the field for whatever reason. Often a device passes every test, and almost makes the leap to commercialization, only for some small detail to ultimately prove that it’s just not economically viable. As a science and technology communicator, I have a Carl Sagan quote quota I gotta meet, so here goes: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And a device that could transform the energy sector? That’s definitely extraordinary, so I’ll be watching AirLoom closely. Fingers-crossed, that they live up to the hype.
- Tech Briefs – AirLoom Energy: Wind Power to Disrupt the Energy Market ↩︎
- AirLoom Energy ↩︎
- New Atlas – Bill Gates backs novel device promising wind energy at 1/3 the cost ↩︎
- AirLoom Patent ↩︎
- TechCrunch – AirLoom has a plan to halve the cost of wind power ↩︎
- Vox – These huge new wind turbines are a marvel. They’re also the future ↩︎
- EEPower – AirLoom CEO: Small Wind Turbine Functions Like a Roller Coaster ↩︎
- Wyoming SBDC – AirLoom Energy Success Story ↩︎
- FINSMES – Airloom Energy Raises $4M in Seed Funding ↩︎
- Yahoo Finance – Why Bill Gates Is Betting Big On Wind Power Startup Airloom: Company’s Novel Turbines are More Efficient And Much Smaller Than Traditional Giant ↩︎
- Freightwaves – Shipping wind turbines is not a breeze ↩︎
- Titan Logistics – Transporting Wind Turbine Blades: How To Do It Correctly ↩︎
- CleanTechnica – Craziest Ever Wind Turbine Is Not So Crazy After All ↩︎
- CBS – Cape May County leaders celebrate offshore wind project demise ↩︎
- University of California, Santa Barbara – Explaining the NIMBY Opposition to Wind Power ↩︎
- PV Magazine – Utility scale solar reaches LCOE of $0.028-$0.041/kWh in the US, Lazard finds ↩︎
- CleanTechnica – Heirloom & AirLoom Prove that Cleantech Stupidity Often Repeats & Even Occasionally Rhymes ↩︎
- CleanTechnica – Airborne Wind Energy: It’s All Platypuses Instead Of Cheetahs ↩︎
- PBS – Bladeless Wind Turbine Too Good To Be True? ↩︎
- WindWorks – Transpower: the Flying Clothesline from the Early 1980s ↩︎
- DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – Small Wind Guidebook ↩︎