Google Energy Kite Nears Launch Date

Richard Bangert The docking tower for Makani’s propeller-driven wind turbine dwarfs a pair of workers at Alameda Point last week. Makani was fine-tuning the turbine’s docking maneuvers before deploying it to a test site in Hawaii.

Google-owned Makani, a wind energy company at Alameda Point, moved one step closer last week to full-scale testing of its flying electricity kite. The novel invention made a rare public appearance at the company’s test site near the USS Hornet to fine-tune the docking maneuver. It will be deployed at a test site being readied in Hawaii where it will reach an altitude of 1,100 feet.

The wind-energy craft was pioneered at Alameda Point. It employs the same principle as a stationary wind turbine, using the wind to rotate a blade connected to a generator. But unlike a traditional wind turbine, the tethered energy kite can soar to twice the height, accessing stronger wind force, while using a fraction of the materials. Electricity is transmitted to the base through the tether.

One of the big engineering challenges has been to design how the kite will launch itself from a docking tower and then return when the wind dies down. An earlier prototype, tethered to a truck-mounted base, was tested at Alameda Point.

The new model has three times the wingspan and twice as many motors and generators as its predecessor. The 84-foot carbon fiber craft uses eight motors to vertically take off and land on its base tower. Once airborne, the motors turn off, and the blades begin driving generators as the kite rotates in the wind.

Makani found an ideal spot to launch its kite at Parker Ranch in Waimea, Hawaii. The 250,000-acre cattle ranch is diversifying by taking on clean-energy projects. At a workshop on alternative energy at Parker Ranch in July 2015, they referred to the local wind corridor on the Big Island as a world-class resource. A traditional wind turbine farm is on the drawing board.

Before Makani can send its kite into the sky, it must first gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Makani representatives have met with local pilots in Hawaii to get their input, according to a story published on Oct. 2 in West Hawaii Today, a daily newspaper circulated on the west side of the Big Island. The test site is five miles from the Waimea Airport.

"Makani has laid out its plans to local groups on the Big Island, including pilots last year who wanted to make sure every measure possible is taken to make sure the kite and tether are visible," wrote West Hawaii Today’s Bret Yager.

Citing Makani project manager Alden Woodrow, Yager wrote, "Woodrow said on Thursday the kite will be lighted, the tether will be marked for visibility and that the FAA may provide other guidance for how the kite’s visibility should be enhanced."

Google’s experimental product division acquired Makani in 2013. Last year the company signed a leasing deal with the city for Building 400, the hangar across the street from its office in the old air traffic control tower where the company is betting on producing a commercially viable clean-energy product.

The company’s website points out that conventional wind turbines are limited by height and the available locations where prevailing winds make economic sense. The wind moves faster and offers exponentially greater power at higher altitudes, according to Makani’s website. "When the wind speed doubles, the amount of available power increases eightfold," the website states.

One kite will produce enough electricity to power 300 homes. See a video of the test at https://vimeo.com/141280416.

Richard Bangert writes the online Alameda Point Environmental Report. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AlamedaPtEnviro.