Nature and Biodiversity

Why airborne wind energy can be a smart investment for net-zero

An airborne kite device used to generate airborne wind energy

Kites are some of the devices used to generate airborne wind energy Image: Johannes Peschel, Kitepower

Ekaterina Bessonova
Communications Specialist, MegaAWE
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Energy and Materials

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  • To achieve net-zero, we must develop and massively scale up a broad variety of renewable energy technologies.
  • Airborne wind energy is a relatively unknown clean energy solution that warrants attention because of its exceptional versatility.
  • These flying energy generators can operate offshore and off-grid, complementing wind, solar and other renewables by filling gaps in their electricity production profiles.

Energy access and climate action go hand in hand. They provide more people with clean renewable power while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, helping curb climate change and distributing development opportunities more evenly.

International energy experts foresee that current renewable energy technologies will only be able to deliver emissions reduction until the end of this decade. Beyond 2030, and to achieve net-zero, we must develop and massively scale up a broad variety of renewable energy technologies.

Many innovations face the challenge of crossing the infamous 'valley of death' between research and commercialisation. Airborne wind energy is one of them. This relatively unknown clean energy solution warrants attention because of its exceptional versatility. It facilitates integration between different types of renewables, while embracing circular economy principles and promoting an inclusive energy transition.

Moreover, the investment needed to mature the airborne wind energy industry is on par with a single 1.2 GW offshore wind park.

What is airborne wind energy?

Airborne wind energy systems use kites, drones and gliders to harvest energy from powerful steady winds at 200-500m altitudes, which are inaccessible to wind turbines. For reference, Kitepower’s Falcon device, with an annual capacity of 450 MWh, produces enough power for 150 households.

These flying energy generators can operate offshore and off-grid, complementing wind, solar and other renewables by conveniently filling gaps in their electricity production profiles.

Have you read?

Airborne wind energy does more with less

Compared to wind turbines, airborne wind energy devices use up to 90% less steel, carbon fibre, concrete, rare earth metals and other materials. This addresses some of the major social and environmental concerns associated with the high raw material demands of other large-scale renewable deployments.

Additionally, the low material use of airborne wind energy devices helps to simplify and de-risk supply chains, enables smaller production facilities and eliminates the need for large installation vessels or extensive industrial port expansions, which pose substantial challenges for offshore wind expansion.

As airborne wind energy technology matures, the advantages of reduced material use will also translate into lower upfront project investment – only 15% of the total lifetime cost of the project, compared to a 40% upfront investment for established wind technology.

Consequently, integrating airborne wind into the energy mix promises a significant reduction in renewable energy production costs overall, including green hydrogen. Researchers from Politecnico di Milano have been working on a model for an offshore hydrogen plant that is powered by airborne wind. This will potentially lower the cost of hydrogen production from €5 to €2 per kilogram by 2040.

Another application at sea is for vessels. International shipping accounts for as much energy-related CO2 emissions as aviation, heavily relying on diesel. But while we tend to think of hydrogen and ammonia when it comes to sustainable marine fuel, airborne wind can also provide energy for ships and keep our emissions reduction efforts going while we are developing these next-generation green fuels. In fact, a French start-up, Airseas, has been testing its Seawing energy kite with a cargo ship in the Atlantic Ocean and reports that its kite successfully towed the ship.

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Promoting energy equity

And the technology is moving quickly, airborne wind developers already have an industry association. The first commercial airborne wind energy kite, implemented by SkySails in collaboration with the Mauritius Renewable Energy Agency (MARENA), has been generating power in Mauritius since 2021. This showcases the commercial viability of airborne wind energy technology and highlights its potential to drive inclusive decarbonization, tackle energy poverty and improve energy access where renewable power penetration is low.

Energy poverty affects millions globally. It’s particularly acute in low-income countries, but also impacts Europe and the US. Energy poverty tends to be more prevalent in rural and remote areas, where the grid often lags due to logistical challenges and high costs. Equipping these disadvantaged locations with modern renewable power will provide opportunities for education, healthcare and economic development, while replacing polluting unsustainable energy sources, such as diesel and charcoal.

Airborne wind energy systems are adaptable and mobile. They don't require extensive infrastructure, such as harbours, mounting equipment or access roads, making them suitable for diverse locations, including remote and off-grid areas.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS), such as Mauritius, in particular, can benefit from this technology due to their reliance on diesel generators and their limited capacity for centralized wind energy infrastructure. Islands in Europe face similar challenges too.

Furthermore, by enabling the production of renewable energy close to the point of consumption, airborne wind energy helps alleviate the strain on existing energy grids, reduces the pressure from unsustainable urban expansion and supports energy justice.

Energy in emergencies

Finally, emergency zones and refugee camps can benefit immensely from airborne wind energy due to relatively easy mobilization and short installation times, which can take as little as three days. People living in refugee camps are among the most affected by energy poverty. These settlements are considered temporary and are often overlooked in electrification efforts. Organizations, such as the World Food Programme, are already exploring the use of airborne wind energy technology in humanitarian assistance operations to address this challenge.

Given the projected intensification of extreme weather events due to climate change, countries may consider incorporating airborne wind energy systems into their disaster response plans to deliver power to the people in need when energy infrastructure is damaged.

Advancing airborne wind energy holds numerous benefits. Crucially, airborne wind energy can produce renewable power from a resource that can’t be accessed by other technologies, while providing a way to reduce energy inequity thanks to its flexibility. So, it’s fundamental to make it part of our energy portfolios.

To create state-of-the-art airborne wind energy technology, this game-changing solution needs support in terms of research and development and remuneration, as well as policies and regulations. With the necessary know-how, we can reap the opportunities that airborne wind energy offers and get closer to reaching net-zero.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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