Mining the Jet-Stream: 2c per kwh?

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As I research more of my my upcoming book –  Ten Technologies to Save our World: Powering the Clean Energy Revolution – I am becoming ever more convinced that 100% renewables is within our grasp. Here’s an idea that sounds kooky at first. Re-worked excerpt from the book.

Copyright©2009 Tom Rand, Eco Ten Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

We’ve all seen farms of big wind turbines, some with blade lengths twice the size of jumbo jets. Wind is big power and can quite easily provide up to 20% of a grid’s power, and with different weather regions connected (called ‘grid-balancing) that ratio can rise to 70%[i]!  Already well-established on land, and now in shallow seas, people – including that irascible oil magnate T. Boone Pickens – are beginning to wake up to the idea that our Prairies are the “Saudia Arabia of wind.”

But where might wind power go from here?  While some companies are eyeing the deep oceans, others are looking up, waaay up. Mining the jet-stream could provide power for as little as 2c per kwh, and just 1% of the American jet-stream could provide all of the electricity needs of the U.S.[ii]

What’s the jet-stream? The jet-stream is a high-altitude wind, fast enough to lengthen or shorten our jet journeys east and west. They are highly regular, and have been measured at speeds greater than 640 kph! They are created where two zones meet in the sky[iii], about 10-15 kilometers up.

The jet-stream never stops. Based on a spinning earth and some basic atmospheric physics, you can count on it day or night, winter or summer. The problem, of course, is the height.

Mining the jet-stream could deliver absolutely enormous amounts of power, constant enough to act as baseload power. So we’re hunting big game here. Who’s on the prowl?

A company called Sky Windpower has developed functional prototypes designed to fly in the jet-stream, generate power, and send it back to earth through the cables by which it is tethered. Since these sky-high turbines are portable, they can be packed up and moved if and when the jet-stream shifts around, as it sometimes does.

The folks at Sky WindPower reckon that they could generate power at 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, if these high-flying turbines were mass deployed – that’s way less than coal! Time Magazine thinks enough of their take on things that they recently named their flying electric generator as one of the top fifty inventions of 2008. 

They might be overly optimistic, and have every reason to model the price downward. But it’s real, the concept is quite straight-forward and given access to the sorts of resources we’re throwing at the Tar Sands should deliver on the promise.

This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky: it’s real, it’s possible, it’s large-scale and it’s on the way!



[i] Source: http://www.risoe.dk/rispubl/reports/ris-r-1608_186-195.pdf

[ii] Source: Source: American Wind Energy Association Report, World Changing, pg. 176

[iii] The ‘troposphere’ decreases in temperature with height, but above it is the ‘stratosphere’, where temperature increases with height. That temperature profile difference conspires with the Coriolis force to create the fast-moving jet-stream.

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