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Posted on March 27, 2017 by Dr Peter Harrop

Airborne Wind Energy: sense and nonsense

The new IDTechEx report, Airborne Wind Energy (AWE) 2017-2027 External Link looks at the addressable markets and technologies and offers forecasts and roadmaps based on ongoing AWE interviews and analysis worldwide. We find that there are two primary addressable markets requiring very different forms of AWE optimised to very different parameters - low power off-grid mobile with a wide variety of priorities and high power on-grid static versions focussed intensely on Levelised Cost of Electricity (LCoE).

Sub markets

Within these two there are sub-markets varying from ones with single weak benefits to ones with multiple strong benefits. For example, large ships each pollute as much as 30,000 cars or more in terms of carbon dioxide global warming and local poisoning by acid and particulate emissions. AWE promises to offer reduced costs and reduced emissions meeting tough new laws and - when combined with other green power- even a route to zero-emission energy-independent shipping. It is a feature of the low-power off-grid addressable market that complete solutions with minimal intermittency and containing batteries are typically needed not wind power on its own and no large battery: the specification for most high power on-grid AWES.

Ship power

For example, for ships, combine the new magnetostrictive and triboelectric energy harvesting and solar roads as decking as analysed in the IDTechEx reports, High Power Energy Harvesting: Off-Grid 10W-1MW 2017-2027 External Link and Triboelectric Energy Harvesting (TENG) 2017-2027 External Link. Add a large MWh battery as discussed in the IDTechEx reports, Electric Boats and Ships 2017-2027 External Link and Lithium-ion Batteries 2016-2026 External Link to give continuous megawatts for ship propulsion and on-board power and potentially energy independence for even the largest ships when they will pollute as much as zero cars. What progress that would be!
The seriousness about the potential AWE contribution is reflected in the fact that two AWE developers going into production will present at the world's first conference on Energy Independent Electric Vehicles (EIV): Kitegen of Norway and Enerkite of Germany. The event Energy Independent Electric Vehicles Land, Water & Air External Link will take place at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands September 27-28 with a table top exhibition, a walk down to see the solar racing cars and boats developed there and, on Sept 26 and 29, six optional masterclasses.
As a power station replacement in the vast regions where conventional wind power is impracticable due to poor ground wind, AWE should also offer strong multiple benefits: both lower cost of electricity and minimal intermittency. By contrast, utilities are unlikely to replace existing wind farms early based on AWES LCoE figures alone and tenuous assumptions about cost-over-life and real world operating parameters when many systems are purchased.

Commercialisation roadmap

We share our commercialisation roadmap which reveals that the low power off-grid mobile AWES will come to market first with about four AWE developers selling product over the next four years. We say when we expect high power on-grid static AWE to be commercially available and from whom.

Investment roadmap

We give an investment roadmap showing how big companies are now increasingly investing in the sector but tending to encourage their investments to ignore the low power off-grid market even though, on our assessment, that will be substantial. These large investors have together invested only around $200 million so far but are often large producers or users of electricity. They will easily be able to justify and provide the much larger investment needed before we see such things as off-shore AWE wind farms but assessment, approval and order placement timescales will be long.
We look at the many different AWE technologies and give an opinion on which are most appropriate for the two primary addressable markets.

Technological needs

We conclude that autonomous take-off and landing are essential for nearly all of the low power off-grid market and for all of the on-grid high power market. Indeed, much more comprehensive autonomy is probably needed for the latter, such as land when a hurricane is coming in or the aircraft or tether is detected to be worn or damaged. We do not believe that conductive tethers for the navigation lights, sensors and actuators on crosswind AWES will always be essential: that power can be harvested locally in the structural electronics analysed in the IDTechEx report, Structural Electronics 2017-2027: Applications, Technologies, Forecasts External Link.

Not all about cheap green electricity

We find that low cost of electricity is usually subservient to other priorities with low power off-grid AWE. For example, an advancing army wishes to eliminate its fuel supply chain that controls its speed of advance and a remote community in a cold region wants more consistent power and higher levels of power than conventional sources provide. On modern farms the power hungry robot vehicles need a charger at the side of the field as they work. There are opportunities for both small and large businesses in all this providing the AWES can be made relatively hassle free and safe in the eyes of all concerned.


Forecasting is hazardous at such an early stage with no significant sales so far. Nonetheless, investors and planners want something to assist their decision making. We therefore give a ten and twenty year forecast based on the take-off of conventional wind energy all those years ago and on our discounting of intentions of those interviewed given an understandable tendency of developers to miss plans so far. Not long after the coming decade it should pass the billion dollar level on a steeply rising exponential.


Some have said they will replace all conventional wind energy in 20 years. This is nonsense: for example, AWES instead of conventional wind turbines in the flight paths of airports from Heathrow to Kiev or over farmed and public access area is not going to happen. The huge swept volume of most AWES is problematic in the multiple flight paths and urban sprawl over most of England and the Netherlands but little problem in Norway or Ukraine where we recently researched. Chile may be interesting for AWES given its winds and its islands - more than almost any other country. We have an analyst out there now taking a look.
Learn more at the next leading event on the topic: Electric Vehicles: Everything is Changing. Europe 2017 External Link on 10 - 11 May 2017 in Berlin, Germany hosted by IDTechEx.