May 2, 2014
Power From Flying BATs And Bagasse
We all hate high fuel and utility prices. Some of us have to pay a lot more than others just because of where we live. Just take the USA for instance. This ranking of electricity costs on a state-by-state basis shows that the cost of electricity in Hawaii is almost four times that of North Dakota. Fossil fuels may be killing the planet, but for now they keep the costs way down. The trouble is that they are not so readily available in many areas, particularly remote places like Alaska. With no connection to mainstream power grids, the first alternative is often the use of expensive, “dirty” diesel. New alternatives are being developed, however, that might just help bring power costs and environmental damage down.
First up is the BAT, or Buoyant Air Turbine, an inflatable wind turbine, which is being produced by Altaeros Energies. The initial commercial scale prototype will be tested near Fairbanks, Alaska, and will be the world’s highest-flying wind turbine. Altaeros claims it could halve the cost of off-grid electricity in Alaska. To my mind it looks a little too much like one of those weird inflatable monsters in Pink Floyd’s dystopian The Wall movie, but maybe if it was saving me a bucket of money as it hangs over my Alaskan retreat, I could live with it. Not that I have such a retreat, of course, but one can dream.
The BAT is a helium-filled inflated ring with a wind turbine suspended inside. Flying at around 1,000 feet, where winds are up to double the ground speed, it will be twice the height of the tallest traditional ground-based wind turbine. One BAT should power up to 12 homes. It can also carry things like communications and sensing equipment, as well as weather monitoring devices. The real beauty of BAT is its ease of deployment – no bulky expensive cranes or lifting gear, just a small power station that controls the high-strength tethers that double up as electricity cables. Altaeros reckons they can have one up and running in 24 hours. This type of turbine has many potential uses. Apart from serving remote communities it could supply military bases, mines, or even disaster zones where power has been lost. Looks good to me.
Meanwhile, a weather world away from icy Alaska, the Caribbean Islands look set to benefit from a different type of “dirty diesel” alternative. Much of the Caribbean relies on diesel for power and costs here are also around four times higher than US averages. The bearded billionaire Richard Branson is testing a “microgrid” system of renewable energy sources; including wind, solar, and batteries on his paradise Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. Don’t go worrying about old Branson though – it’s not that he is losing sleep worrying about his electricity bills, he is just aiming to make renewable energy available and cost effective throughout the Caribbean. Branson founded the non-profit and colorfully named Carbon War Room to promote the Ten Island Renewable Challenge in an attempt to overcome some of the barriers to replacing diesel. With relatively small populations and economies ,there has always been a problem getting finance and support for energy projects, and Branson wants to turn this around.
Over in Barbados, though, they are on the ball already with an innovative idea for renewable energy – sugar. Once a mainstay of the island’s economy, the sugar industry has suffered badly as the likes of Thailand, Brazil, and Australia have captured huge chunks of the world sugar market. Coupled with rising oil prices, this has had a big impact on the Barbados economy. By growing a new, special type of sugar cane (fuel cane) more suited to fuelling biomass power plants, Barbados is hoping to regain some ground by using the previously uneconomic sugar production to generate electricity, keeping costs down, and reducing its reliance on expensive oil. The residue from sugar cane production – the squeezed out fibre known as bagasse – is used worldwide as fuel. What’s different about the Barbados project is that the new “fuel cane” is twice as high in fiber, yields twice the biomass per acre, and can be grown year round. It looks like a great idea. Just don’t stop making the rum, guys, please!
Image Credit: Altaeros Energies