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Inventions & Questionable Turbines

October 23, 2013
Paul Gipe

Makani Kite Turbines Response

Note: This article originally appeared 8 August 2013. It was updated with links to Mike Barnard on the same topic.A reader pointed out that the performance of the small rotors on Makani was due to their crosswind operation. Thus, they used much higher wind speed than that of the wind across the ground. See allso Making sense of Makani's [Kite] Claims for Paul Gipe.

Gustav Pansegrouw from South Africa wrote asking questions about the Makani “wind turbine” that Google bought. He’d read an article in the New Yorker magazine touting the company.

I haven’t paid much attention to Makani, just as I haven’t paid much attention to other kite designs. And yes, there are quite a few “kite wind turbines” besides Makani, either in the press, under development, seeking financing, or already bust.

For more on kites, see Mike Barnard's Are airborne wind turbines a plausible source of cheap clean energy?

Doubting the wisdom of some of the other non-Google investments Google has made, I placed Makani in the same category—Google should stick to googling.

In general, I follow the advice of Professor Doktor Robert Gasch of TU-Berlin. His advice, proven wise time and time again, is “don’t pay any attention to it until they have

  • Built it,
  • Tested it, and
  • Published the results.

To my knowledge, and based on the article in the New Yorker, Makani is still at step one. They’ve built a prototype.

They haven’t tested it, and they certainly haven’t published results that we can analyze, the hype in the New Yorker notwithstanding.

Mr. Pansegrouw adds these observations from the New Yorker article

“The fact that Boeing and NASA have helped with advice while Google has now agreed to buy the company.” 

In my mind, these affiliations are the kiss of death and another reason I dismiss Makani until they prove worthy of attention. Yes, I am cynical but I’ve been doing this a while and I’ve seen so many “experts” (myself included) overlook some fundamental element of physics and get it wrong.

I suggest reading the articles and books by Rinie van Est, Peter Karnøe, and Matthias Heymann, as well as my own book Wind Energy Comes of Age for the modern history of wind energy. There you will find tales of hubris, arrogance,and hype from among the leaders of science and industry, including NASA, Boeing, and host of other similar institutions in other countries.

What we documented is that the rise of modern wind energy had very little to do with the Boeings and NASA’s of the world. Instead, it was humble farm equipment manufacturers that made wind work.

So no, the fact that NASA and Boeing has helped Makani means nothing in the grand scheme of things. However, such affiliations are often used by hucksters intent on hyping their inventions.

I agree with Mr. Pansegrouw that from the size of the four turbines in the photo that they could produce at best 2 kW, though their peak power could be somewhat higher. It also appears hard to imagine how these four little turbines could power 20 California homes. Maybe they could power one-quarter or one-fifth of that amount.

Makani “rates” the kite at 30 kW, not 2 kW, not 4 kW, but 30 kW! One could argue that they plan to fly the plane at such altitudes where the wind is so strong these four little turbines would produce 30 kW. Not at all. Makani plans to fly this model at “up to” 110 meters.

Most commercial wind turbines today are installed on towers 100-meters tall. Thus, there’s no unknown, mysterious wind resource at 100 meters. We already know what’s there. And what’s there won’t get Makani to 30 kW.

In other words, Makani’s claims sound like so many other “claims” of wind turbine inventors that are never realized.

My advice to Mr. Pansegrouw is to ignore Makani until it either goes away—like so many other wind “inventions”—or Makani proves their claims.

Good and bad bets: new wind technologies rated by Mike Barnard

Invest carefully; wind energy ‘innovations’ are rarely kosher by Mike Barnard

Are airborne wind turbines a plausible source of cheap clean energy? by Mike Barnard

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