In an increasingly electrified world, the concept of harnessing reliable, inexpensive energy sources sits near the top of most policymakers' wish lists.  And there is no energy source more reliable than the wind at high altitudes.  The problem, of course, is how to inexpensively turn it into energy.

That problem may be solved sooner rather than later.  With modern technology, according to an article by Erik Vance [subscription only] in the recent Nature magazine, a number of entrepreneurs are now testing their abilty to create electricity from high-altitude winds.  Of course, they'd rather tap into the earth's jet streams — those narrows bands of powerful air currents 5 to 8 miles above the earth's surface that contain roughly 100 times the amount of energy that humans use today.  But finding those jet streams isn't always easy, and actually harnessing energy at that height would be prohibitively expensive. So these entrepreneurs are focusing on winds in the range of 200 to 1000 yards above the ground. 

For those who spend virtually all their time on the ground and don't understand all the excitement about high-altitude wind, Mr. Vance's article puts it in perspective. Using weather measuring equipment, a snapshot of wind speed at a site in Northern California found the following:  "At ground level, a light breeze is blowing at under 10 kilometres per hour. At 900 metres, the speed reaches 50 kilometres per hour. But conventional wind turbines only stand about 130 metres or so above the ground. So a wind collector flying 900 metres above the town could theoretically gather 125 times as much energy as a turbine on the ground."

How do these companies plan to tackle the challenge of turning high-altitude wind into energy?  Sky Windpower is developing an unmanned helicopter whose horizontal rotors will both keep it aloft and generate electricity.  Makani Power has a glider with rotors that will be flown like a kite.  And then there's JoeBen Bevirt, a California inventor who is working on a large wing-frame with large rotors at each corner that he hopes to maneuver into the jet stream itself.

The wonders of our free enterprise system can be seen in this race to solve a problem.  One day down the road, one or more of these entrepreneurs will likely become well compensated (and well known) with their invention that generates energy from high-altitude wind.  And, in the process, our standard of living will rise a little more.  A win-win for everyone.


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