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Wind Turbines? Try a Wind Kite

Wind power might be clean and renewable energy, but is it efficient?

It turns out that modern wind turbines could use some innovation. The best wind—meaning the most powerful and constant wind—blows at high altitudes. To reach it, turbine manufacturers have tried to build wide, sturdy bases made of heavy steel. Then they’re shipped far distances to be assembled on rural land.

So why not get rid of the base? That’s the premise at work at Makani Power, a quirky wind power start-up in Alameda, California, trying to design the equivalent of a high tech kite. It flies at high altitudes, up to 1,900 feet, and sends electricity back to the ground through a tether. When it’s windy the super-light kite can launch itself, and when the breeze dies down, an on-board computer helps it automatically land.

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When we visited Makani—which means “wind” in Hawaiian—just across the bay from San Francisco, we found a company full of self-proclaimed wind-o-philes, people drawn to the power of the air. Kite technology has been around for hundreds of years, Damon Vander Lind, the company’s head engineer, told us. “What’s new here is that we have the technology to harness electricity with it.”

Vander Lind gave us a tour of the concept, and engineer Kenny Jensen showed us how the kite works. Engineers are working on a model with a peak hourly capacity of 600 kilowatts, about enough to power the average refrigerator for a year. The wind wasn’t prime for a test flight the day we visited Makani, but seeing the device up close made it easy to imagine how behemoth steel turbines would eventually be replaced by sleeker, more efficient wind power generators.

The company, housed in an old airport hangar, conducts weekly tests in hopes of scaling the technology. Next up is partnering with nearby utilities. And further into the future, engineers hope, an inexpensive, light, and productive kite anywhere it’s windy.