Tapping Wind Power at the Highest of Heights

A new study provides the first-ever global survey of high-altitude wind energy potential. Turbines of the future, as envisioned by scientists at The Carnegie Institution for Science and California State University, will look less like the looming windmills we're used to and more like kites with long, conductive tethers.

The study, which focuses on jet stream winds high above the world's five largest cities, concludes that high-altitude winds hold enough untapped potential energy to meet the world's demand 100 times over. Ideally, the turbine-kites would reach the fastest moving winds on the planet, jet streams blowing 20-50,000 feet above ground. And based on current designs, each kite-like turbine could transmit up to 40 megawatts of electricity through its tether. Since winds close to the ground are much weaker than those at higher altitudes, the 40 MW potential from just one high-flying kite is about the same amount of energy transmitted by 20 terrestrial turbines.

New York City has the highest wind energy potential of any city in the United States. Other cities with high potential internationally are Tokyo and Seoul. Although high-altitude turbines would be a huge step forward in the efficiency and utility of wind power, wind is never 100 percent predictable. Even the scientists involved in the new study concede that some sort of back-up energy source would have to be waiting in the wings. But even so, this new research coinciding with a globally heightened move toward "green energy" has renewable energy proponents very hopeful. Perhaps in years to come Times Square will be lit by kites above New York!