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Offbeat Ideas Make Wind Turbines Cheaper

A popular refrain among venture capitalists investing in clean technologies is that they won't touch wind because it's a "mature" technology. Despite that view, the industry is still figuring out improvements on a fairly regular basis.

By "improvements" I don't mean oddball ideas like the Maglev Wind Turbine or designer Philippe Starck's stylish home turbine. Such creativity will inevitably run into the iron rule of energy: It must be cost-effective compared to existing technology. That said, I've seen a few ideas pop up this week with an eye to improving the costs of existing tech.

The first is simply adding some height to turbine towers. Wind at higher altitudes tends to be stronger. Raising taller turbines also increases the stresses on the tower, thus complicating construction, but a German company called Advanced Tower Systems has figured out a system combining pre-fabricated concrete and steel that may do the trick. By adding over a hundred feet to a typical hub height of 328 feet, ATS says it can increase energy yields by 20 percent.

An alternate idea is to keep towers lower to the ground, but add equipment that directs more wind to the turbines. That's what Leviathan Energy plans to do with its "Wind Energizer", a structure set around the base of a turbine that re-directs wind that would have passed below the turbine up towards it. Leviathan is beginning sales of the Energizer in the United States, although like ATS, its product will require testing.

Vestas, on the other hand, isn't trying to improve the operation of turbines with its Vestas Tower Crane, but instead to reduce maintenance costs. Instead of extending from the ground, the VTC clamps itself to the hub and crawls upwards to make repairs. Current cranes have to stop work in high wind -- a bit of a problem in the windy areas preferred for turbines. Maintenance does add significantly to costs over time, so a better crane could be important in the long run.

Of course, there may still be room for big leaps and odd ideas. Makani Power, for example, gave a talk today about its technology, essentially a giant kite tethered to a generator that flies at an altitude far above what terrestrial turbines can achieve. Makani has been hard at work for several years without saying much at all, but it's unlikely Google.org would have invested in the company if there weren't something to it.

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