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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Flying Wind Turbines - Magenn Power's Air Rotation System

Well, I've seen designs for flying wind turbines before (check out Sky WindPower's design, for example) but a new design from Magenn Power Inc might be a bit more practical and has been generating some excitement from readers over at Treehugger. Unlike Sky WindPower's gyrocopter-based design, Magenn's design seems much simpler, is designed to operate at lower alititudes, and is based on well-developed airship technology.

The Magenn Power Air Rotor System (MARS), is an innovative lighter-than-air tethered device that rotates about a horizontal axis in response to wind. A helium (or hydrogen) filled airship-like bouyant turbine, the 'Air Rotor', is tethered to the ground by an insulated conductive tether and rises to a height of 400 to 1000 feet to take advantage of more constant and higher wind speeds at higher altitudes. There, the body of the Air Rotor spins in the wind generating electricity which is transferred down the tether to a transformer at a ground station and then transferred to the electricity power grid. The body of the Air Rotor is constructed of Vectran, a high tenacity, bulletproof, composite woven material (similar to Kevlar) that is stronger than steel of the same thickness.

The MARS turbine gets both bouyancy from it's lighter-than-air contents as well lift from the 'Magnus effect.' Named for the Magnus airship designed by MARS designer, Fred Ferguson, the Magnus effect refers to the behavior of a rotating airship wherein as wind speed increases, the rotation of the airship increases, which in turn generates lift, increases stability and minimizes air drag because of reduced leaning. It also keeps the MARS turbine positioned within a very controlled and restricted location, and causes it to pull up overhead rather than drift downwind on its tether.

According to Magenn, their MARS design offers several distinct advantages over traditional blade-like horizontal-axis wind turbines mounted on towers:

  • Magenn Air Rotor System is less expensive per unit of actual electrical energy output than competing wind power systems.

  • Magenn Power Air Rotor System will deliver time-averaged output much closer to its rated capacity than the capacity factor typical with conventional designs. Magenn efficiency will be 40 to 50 percent [normal industrial-scale turbines have capacity factors more like 20-30% for comparison). This is hugely important, since doubling capacity factor cuts the cost of each delivered watt by half.

  • Wind farms can be placed closer to demand centers, reducing transmission line costs and transmission line loses.
    Conventional wind generators are only operable in wind speeds between 3 meters/sec and 28 meters/sec. Magenn Air Rotors are operable between 1 meter/sec and in excess of 28 meters/sec.

  • Magenn Air Rotors can be raised to higher altitudes, thus capitalizing on higher winds aloft. Altitudes from 400-ft to 1,000-ft above ground level are possible, without having to build an expensive tower, or use a crane to perform maintenance.

  • Magenn Air Rotors are mobile and can be easily moved to different locations to correspond to changing wind patterns.

  • Mobility is also useful in emergency deployment and disaster relief situations.

  • Magenn claims that these qualities combine to make their MARS turbines "the most cost-effective wind electrical generation system."

    Magenn claims that the MARS design is very scalable and allows them "to produce wind rotors from very small to very large sizes at a fraction of the cost of current wind generators." This would allow the MARS design to be used in a number of different applications. As Magenn's website writes:
    "The Magenn system concept is deployment-flexible. Large MARS units may be deployed to supplement established grid systems supporting the electrical requirements of large urban areas. Small MARS units would be deployed in emergency, as-needed, and/or mobile applications (e.g., pack version deployed by a hiker, motorist, boater, or for military and emergency response applications). Various in-between sizes would be ideal for farms, houses and cottages located where grid power is nonexistent. Small to medium sized systems could also be air-dropped into disaster areas for emergency electrical power for medical and all other uses."

    According to Magenn, the company "will start manufacturing its Air Rotors in Fall of 2006 and will start taking product orders in April of 2006 for ... 4.0 kW MARS units." These "cottage or home sized" units will be 39 feet long with a 14-foot diameter and are designed to operate at a height of 150-400 feet. Target price at release will be $9,999 (USD). According to their products page, Magenn also plans to release both larger and smaller sized units between 2007 and 2009 starting with a camper or boater sized 1 kW unit (6.5' diameter, 19.5' long, operating height of 50-150') that they plan to sell for $1,999 (USD) beginning in 2007. The largest planned turbines would be released in 2009 and include two units suitable for commercial power applications and rated at 800 kW and 1.6 MW. Both units supposedly would have a 67' diameter, be 200' long, and operate at heights of 400-925'. I'm confused about how they could get double the output from the same-sized unit though. The price of these units is still to be determined.

    Obviously, Magenn's design raises concerns about tethered wind turbines interfereing with air traffic. However, Magenn is keenly aware of this issue and has paid particularl attention to ensuring that their systems comply with altitude guidelines as directed by FAA regulations. According to Magenn, "the five points below represent a summary of Magenn planning to satisfy these guidelines:

  • MARS units may not operate in controlled airspace or within five miles of the boundary of any airport.

  • MARS units that are deployed over 150 feet on a permanent basis will require a NOTAM, which stands for: Notices to Airmen. A NOTAM is issued by the FAA or its equivalent to inform pilots of new or changed aeronautical facilities, services, procedures, or hazards, temporary or permanent. NOTAMS are not difficult to obtain, but will be necessary in most deployment cases in US, Canada and Europe.

  • MARS units that operate over 150 feet will have a lighting system including individual lights that are placed every 50 feet on its tether. The lights will flash once per second.

  • MARS units will have a Rapid Deflation Device installed that will automatically and rapidly deflate the balloon if it escapes from its moorings. MARS device will be equipped with at least two deflate systems that will bring the units slowly and safely to the ground. If the MARS unit "cut down" system does not function properly, it will immediately notify the nearest ATC facility of the location and time of the escaped and the estimated flight path of the balloon.

  • MARS units balloon envelope is equipped with a radar reflective material that will present an echo to surface radar operating in the 200 MHz to 2700 MHz frequency range."

  • I think the most significant problem that Magenn's flying turbines will have to overcome will be issues with visual pollution. I'm pretty certain that NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) opposition would be substantial to having a few dozen flying turbines tethered above urban areas with blinking lights every 50 feet along each tether. These might meet a more warm reception from farmers or other people living in rural areas where the small population density might make NIMBY opposition smaller. Small MARS turbines may find a niche in disaster relief applications as well where the dire situation would presumably outweigh any NIMBY issues that might arise.

    In the end though, this is a very smart design and offers some substantial advantages over normal turbines. Being able to deploy the turbines at much higher heights than traditional turbines where they can utilize more constant wind speeds could seriously decrease the levelized cost of wind power. Additionally, being able to delpoy these turbines closer to urban areas - where wind speeds are not high enough at lower elevations to support traditional wind turbines but might be high enough at altitudes of 1,000 ft - would avoid infrastructure issues that plague traditional wind developments. Such traditional developments are often sited in remote locations where the costs of building new infrastructure to connect to the grid can become a substantial portion of overall project costs. Citing generation near demand centers also reduces transmission losses. Also, eliminating the need for the large steel towers that support traditional turbines means that the MARS design could likely deployed at a lower cost than traditional turbines.

    It will be interesting to see if this design can overcome NIMBY opposition to visual pollution issues. If it can, Magenn's MARS flying turbines could become another useful addition to our renewable energy 'toolbox'.


    Jesse Jenkins said...

    Treehugger has an interview with the inventor of the Magenn Air Rotor System, Fred Ferguson. Check it out...

    Anonymous said...

    Cool idea;

    With regards to NIMBY syndrome:

    From what I have read, the whole idea of the Magenn MARS units is that you don't need to put it near the expensive water front properties on the coast.

    If appears that you can put it more inland because you can raise it up to 1000ft and catch better winds.

    That said, I think I would rather have a Magenn Air Rotor then a Wind Turbine in my back yard.

    Congrats Magenn, hope you are successful.

    Anonymous said...

    I have been following the Sky Wind Power Wind Rotors for quite some time.

    I think now after reading this blog that the Magenn Air Rotors stuff makes more sense.

    I hope that they are both successful.

    Jesse Jenkins said...

    I agree that the MARS turbines could avoid NIMBY issues from waterfront property owners that have stopped many an off-shore wind development, but I am concerned that the reaction to the site of a dozen MARS units floating 1,000 ft above a metro area with red blinking lights every 50 feet up the teather may not be so positive. Then again, we do put up with radio and TV towers sitting on top of whatever high ground they can find around our cities so who knows...

    Anonymous said...

    NIMBY, doesn't apply to me, I want one of these MARS units asap.

    Though you are right, you probably won't see them flying over a city, but you can fly a couple dozen over my 500 acres of farm land in southern Ontario any time you like.

    Great article Watthead, keep up the good work, I love reading about stuff like this!!!

    Anonymous said...

    Interesting idea. They present the advantages of what seems to be a viable product without discussing that the deadly impact of wind power to birds and bats is eliminated. I look forward to field data when someone installs a system.

    Engineer-Poet said...

    The Magenn device is a glorified pinwheel, operating by drag forces alone.  It's feasible to do much better using airfoils, and perhaps duplicate (or even increase) the lifting effect.  I'm thinking of something like a Darrius rotor on its side.  A system with blades rotating at several times the wind speed would have greater efficiency, and a machine which uses inertial forces to expand its wind-catching area would have greater capture area for a given gas volume.

    Anonymous said...

    I'm looking for producers of darrius type vertical axis wind generators.

    Can anyone help???

    We Sell It All Dicker and Deal Here Pawnshop said...

    My husband and I are working on installing our own turbine. We are not as fancy as some we have been reading about online as we do not have the funds for the new ones. When we went to our local government to request permission to install it, the neighborhood had to be polled for their feelings on the whole project. Do I have to write anymore on the local opinions of my neighbors-NIMBY is correct. We still have permission to finish the project and we are going awful slow at it, but we sure made a lot of people unhappy-and I really think it is just because people do not like change. I mean our turbine is not going to be ugly or anything.