Three inventors could be just about to radically transform wind power. One from Spain, who’s come up with a turbine that doesn’t need turbine towers or blades. One from the UK, who’s built one that doesn’t even need the wind. And a German one, who’s invented a kite that harnesses energy high in the sky.
“We are not against traditional windfarms,” says David Yáñez, the inventor of Vortex Bladeless. His six-person startup, based just outside Madrid, has pioneered a turbine design that can harness energy from the wind without those big sweeping white blades.
The design recently won the approval of Norway’s state energy company, Equinor, which has placed Vortex on a list of the ten most exciting startups in the energy sector. Equinor will also offer the startup development support through its tech accelerator program.
The bladeless turbines are just three metres high and feature a curve-topped cylinder fixed vertically with an elastic rod. To the untrained eye it appears to wiggle back and forth, not unlike a car dashboard toy. However, it’s designed to oscillate within the wind range and generate electricity from the vibration.
“Our technology has different characteristics that can help fill the gaps where traditional windfarms might not be appropriate,” says Yáñez. That could include urban areas where the impact of a windfarm would be too great, and the space to build one too small. It could be wind power’s version of the home solar panel, he adds.
“Today, the turbine is small and would generate small amounts of electricity. But we are looking for an industrial partner to scale up our plans to a 140-metre turbine with a power capacity of 1MW,” says Yáñez.
Vortex isn’t the only startup hoping to reinvent wind power. Alpha 311, which began in a garden shed in Kent in the UK, has begun manufacturing a small vertical wind turbine it claims can generate electricity without even the wind.
The two-metre high turbine, made from recycled plastic, is designed to fit on to existing streetlights and generate electricity as passing cars rush past. Independent research commissioned by the company has found that each turbine installed along a motorway could generate as much electricity as 20 square metres of solar panels, more than enough electricity to keep the streetlight on and help power the local energy grid, too.
A scaled-down version of the turbine, standing at less than one metre, will be installed at the O2 Arena in London where it will help generate electricity for the 9 million people who visit the entertainment venue in a typical year.
“While our turbines can be placed anywhere, the optimal location is next to a highway, where they can be fitted to existing infrastructure. There’s no need to dig anything up, as they can attach to the lighting columns that are already there and use the existing cabling to feed directly into the grid,” says Mike Shaw, a spokesperson for Alpha 311. “The footprint is small, and motorways aren’t exactly beauty spots.”
A kite that captures high-altitude winds
But perhaps the most ambitious divergence from the standard wind turbine has emerged from the German startup SkySails, which hopes to use an airborne design to harness wind power directly from the sky.
SkySails makes large fully automated kites designed to fly at altitudes of 400 metres to capture the power of high-altitude winds. During its ascent the kite pulls a rope tethered to a winch and a generator on the ground. The kite generates electricity as it rises into the sky and, once completely unspooled, uses only a fraction of the electricity generated to winch back towards the ground.
SkySails CEO Stephan Wrage says the airborne system means “the impact on people and the environment is minimal . . . The systems work very quietly, practically have no visible effect on the landscape and barely cast a shadow.”
At the moment, the system can generate between 100–200kW, but a new partnership with the German energy company RWE could increase the potential output from kilowatts to megawatts. A spokesperson for RWE said the pair are currently looking for the ideal kite-flying site in the German countryside.
TOP Vortex Bladeless’s wind turbine, Vortex Nano, on the roof of Superior Technical School in Avila, Spain
BOTTOM SkySails onshore power kite