Airborne Wind Energy Startup Takes Flight

Devices reaching higher altitude winds produce up to four times the electricity of a small wind turbine.
Devices reaching higher altitude winds produce up to four times the electricity of a small wind turbine.

Revolutionizing the kite-string-to-power idea not seen since the days of Ben Franklin

Written by Kevin Max

Bence Oliver had plenty of experience with renewable energy, even wind energy, but it was a coffee in Portland with eWind founder David Schaefer that put wind under his wings.

Oliver had just resigned from his post as the chief financial officer at Windlift, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based airborne wind energy company, when he returned to Portland, where he’d lived before. Before Windlift, Oliver had spent five years with eBay, as its director of strategic sourcing in Switzerland.

“Prior to my arrival at eWind, I was really impressed with how much they were able to do with relatively little money,” he said. “In a relatively short amount of time, they were able to put together a system that is fully functional, it flies, and it generates electricity.”

Airborne wind energy is a system that uses a flying blade or kite that is blown by strong wind and tethered to a base on the ground, where the wind-blown kite’s movement is converted into storable energy. eWind’s kite is essentially a light autonomous drone with a 10-foot wingspan.

Alternatively, in some versions of airborne wind energy, the power generation happens in the blade or kite. The system that eWind uses follows the model of the former, where the tether is connected to a drum at the base that, when the tether is pulled, turns the drum and creates energy.

“Airborne wind energy is a pretty innovative new type of renewable energy system,” Oliver said. “It’s really cool because the turbines themselves are actually kites, they fly like a kite and they tap high altitude winds, which is very different from a traditional wind turbine.”

Typically when people think of wind power, they imagine enormous towers of more than 250 feet with turbine blades of 150 feet, and tons of steel and concrete. They can also be noisy and visually pollutive of open spaces.

Airborne wind energy is much smaller (the equipment can fit in the back of a pickup truck), a fraction of the cost, virtually noise free and can be set up in fifteen minutes. Of course, eWind and other airborne wind energy systems are not meant to be utility-scale operations (at peak capacity eWind can produce 10 megawatts of energy per day) but used for specific settings such as high altitude farming and temporary “forward” military bases. For illustration, at the time of this interview, Oliver was meeting with officials from Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina.

“There is strong interest from not only the military, but other departments as well that might be able to benefit from producing power beyond the grid,” said Oliver. “Or departments like the Department of Agriculture, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Department of Defense. Those are all organizations or departments that have a strong interest in new ways to produce a ton of power without fossil fuels.”

Bence Oliver is CEO of eWind.
Bence Oliver is CEO of eWind.

The wind energy startup earned early recognition in Abu Dhabi in 2020, winning a technology award and grant funding from the United Arab Emirates government to continue research and development. Still in a pre-production phase, eWind has fully functional prototypes. The bulk of its funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Ultimately, Oliver thinks that the company will get bigger by making its wind systems smaller.

“Most companies in this space are looking to solve a utility solution, megawatts,” Oliver noted. “Given the kinds of functions that attract people to our system, our goal is to go smaller, maybe even produce less power depending on the application and reducing our footprint.”

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