Wind Energy Inventing is like getting stuck in The La Brea Tar Pits

The La Brea Tar Pits in Southern California (Downtown Los Angeles) are an example of how much oil we have under California. More than the rest of the country comnbined, from what I hear. The oil industry, however, by controlling “the environmental movement”, makes sure we are not allowed to drill for it, lest it cause a glut of oil which would cause prices to drop. Many, many oilfields are in this same situation - whatever it takes to shut down drilling. Venezuela has more known oil reserves than any country- the answer? A communist “revolution” to shut down drilling. Iraq - tons of oil fields? Have a war and burn them all down! Whatever it takes to keep prices up!
Anyway I digress. What I really want to explain is how the LaBrea Tar Pits in Los Angeles are similar to AWE and “alternative” wind energy designs in general. So, if you are a wind energy inventor, or a wannabe inventor, or just someone with ideas for what you think is a “new” approach to wind energy or turbine design, you are similar to the many Saber-tooth Tiger remains that are so abundant in the La Brea Tar Pits. What are the La Brea Tar Pits? Here in California, Oil is so abundant it seeps to the surface in many areas. “Brea” translates to “tar” in Spanish, and we even have a city named “Brea” in Orange County. Still a few oil wells there, scattered about one of the few remaining beautiful areas of Orange County not ruined by sprawling development. Oil wells preserving nature, don’tcha know. Of course you never hear about that, right? All you hear is how oil “destroys the environment” etc. Meanwhile the oil drilling area is by far the greenest part of North Orange County…
Anyway, during the last ice age, the La Brea Tar Pits were in a mostly unpopulated place (Now Los Angeles!), which is a pretty dry area most of the time. (We also get tar on the bottoms of our feet at the beach due to natural underwater oil seeps.) And Huntington Beach (Surf City) where I used to live was covered in working oil wells when I moved there, with the high school team called “The Oilers”, but real estate development took over and built condos over all the oil fields. Whatever it takes to create scarcity…
So this crude oil seeps to the surface in many places, and the volatiles evaporate, leaving vast pools of tar on the ground. Then the tar gets covered with dust, so an unwary animal can easily get stuck in the tar, and never get out. Imagine a deer tries to run across a tar pit since it looks dry, and gets stuck. The deer is “smart”, but just doesn’t know about tar pits. So much for the deer, no matter how smart it was, it just didn’t know.
Then you have a saber-tooth tiger that sees the deer struggling, and figures it has just found “lunch” so it runs across the apparently dry ground and also gets stuck in the tar. Over the years, so many animals get stuck in the tar that it is like a time capsule for life over the thousands of years. Today people dig up endless bones of the animals that were smart enough to survive, until they came across something their experience didn’t warn them about: Getting stuck in tar when it looked like dry ground covered with dust.
Maybe out of 1000 animals getting stuck, one out of a thousand is able to escape.
This is very similar to how real wind people see wannabe wind energy inventors:
We KNOW how difficult wind energy is. We KNOW how to “escape” getting “stuck”. We’ve SEEN a thousand “animals” get stuck in the “tar” of trying to invent a better way to do wind energy, so when the NEXT “animal” declares how it is going to run across what they think is dry ground to grab that struggling deer, we KNOW they too will become stuck in the muck and never emerge intact. We’ve seen it. We’ve gotten stuck but escaped, but we know what is going to happen to the other 999 out of 1000 animals! It really is that simple. So when we express skepticism, or say some well-intended idea sounds like nonsense, or just say “idiots, idiots, idiots”, it’s because we’ve seen this movie play out a thousand times, not because we’re “mean” or unable to appreciate the “vision”. Just as someone who knows what a tar pit is can say an animal running toward it will get stuck forever, we can confidently say a group of say, 50 people, with a few million dollars, taking mostly group selfies and renting office space, will NOT “power 100 homes by next year” any more than the next saber-tooth tiger will bag his next deer by running across what looks like a merely dusty field. Nope, we know they will get stuck in the muck and go bankrupt. Seen it happen enough times, we can pretty confidently say “they don’t know what they’re doing”.
So for the latest, greatest, newest people deciding they are suddenly going to come up with a whole new way to do wind energy, you should know what happened to the previous 1000 saber-tooth tigers who thought the same thing! :slight_smile:
(By the way I had no luck placing this in the “category” I wanted, but needed to get it posted before the whole day goes by.)

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Hi Doug, are you saying AWE is a lost cause?

Could it be a saber-tooth SuperTiger ™?

Maybe, if I would get off my ass. :slight_smile:

Hi Pierre:
No, not saying it is a lost cause, just that people should realize, out of (let’s conservatively say there have been) 1000 attempts to “improve” on standard wind turbines, NONE has been successful, at least insofar as becoming a significant force in the industry. Darrieus turbines? Yes they work, but nobody is using them because they are not an IMPROVEMENT. Ducted (DAWT) turbines? Same answer. Yes, the concept is valid. Turns out the economics are not. At least so far. The odds go down from there. Just so people know what the odds are. If you go out to Las Vegas, and hit the roulette table, and place $100 on “red”, you know going in what your odds are. You have a decent chance of doubling your money. If instead you place your $100 on “5”, your odds drop to what, 1 in 38? Still reasonable odds. But if you found out your odds were worse than one in a thousand, you might reconsider whether you even wanted to play! Easy to see your odds on a roulette table, not so easy with AWE or any wind energy scheme. :slight_smile:

Hi Doug,
I really like your analogy, because it is so important to be realistic and understand the risks and challenges before doing anything that can have a lasting effect (other than burning VC money, which is always possible, but actually counter-productive in the longer run). But to me it sometimes looks as if you don’t believe in AWE at all, so I am wondering whether you are aware of the (somewhat recent) progress made by Sky Sails, a German manufacturer of kite-based vessel propulsion systems which is now also producing AWE systems (see for the group and for the power branch). I must admit I am a layman in this field, but to me it looks as if there is some decent technology behind what this company has to offer. Am I wrong, and what is it I am missing?
Thanks a lot for your opinion, Andreas

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Hi Andreas:
I am very positive about airborne wind energy, being one of the original pioneers of the concept. However I also have a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn’t work, noting the plethora of companies entering the field with no experience in wind energy, making broad pronouncements of how many “hundred homes” they “will power” (always “next year”) then go bankrupt. They typically issue a lot of press-releases, pay for fancy websites with lots of renderings, spend millions of dollars on large staffs whereby they feel obligated to take a nice group selfie so their mom’s can tell all their friends, then go bankrupt. Didn’t Skysails already go bankrupt once? And didn’t their kite-sailing ship Beluga stop using its AWE pulling system? SO far it seems that, as compelling and simple as directly pulling a ship with a kite seems, it never turns out to be worth the trouble.

Then they somehow re-emerged from bankruptcy (if I have that story right - sorry if not), and “the big AWEnews” well over a year ago was they had procured a large, modern factory, and shipped an AWE system to the island of Mauritius (It’s always an island or remote place). Then we never heard anything else about it. Who knows, but one would think if an AWE system were in regular operation powering homes, we’d have heard about it.

Despite over a billion dollars spent, and “certain” pronouncements, even by one of the largest corporations in the world (“google”), there are still, as far as I know, zero homes powered by AWE to this day, after 14 years of this hype!
The sales pitch was they were going to substitute software for hardware. So in 14 years they haven’t had time to write the software? Of is it they just don’t really know wind energy with its unique challenges?

So, like Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye (I’m remembering this from high school in the 1970’s) (?) dreaming of saving kids from running off a cliff, I try to save wannabe AWE people from running off a cliff, getting stuck in the La Brea tar pits - whatever analogy you want to use. :slight_smile:

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Hi Doug, thanks a lot for your detailed reply! SkySails indeed went through difficult times, after their solution for the cargo market came out at a time when fuel was so cheap that they couldn’t sell it. But your remarks about the Mauritius project made me curious, as they had announced it for last year and the lack of any news since looks indeed somewhat worrisome. Hence I called them and learned that the thing is almost ready to go into production and they will post an article on their website within a few weeks. So let’s wait a bit longer and then see what it will turn out to look like. Yeah, it is funny that it’s always an island or remote place, but this is easy to explain. New stuff tends to be not competitive against established solutions, so they often have to find a niche in which they can grow. When PV started in space and is now mainstream, Mauritius might be an ok place to start AWE. :wink:


I don’t think one should infer that an AWES is operational or not, by simple deduction from factors such as development location, communication, etc.

Only the technical data, ease of installation, EROI should prevail.

Regarding SkySails measured data from tests exist and are available on the pdf linked to the message below (see figure 15, average 92 kW with 12 m/s wind speed):

Also old tests on similar but smaller yo-yo flexible AWES:

Andreas: Well sounds just like what they’ve been saying for as long as I can remember. Maybe you are new to AWE, but there is a pattern that always seems to remain intact: All the big accomplishments as far as actually implementing AWE are perpetually “in the future”, and typically are stated to be planned for “next year”. After 14 years of “next year”, it’s become a never-ending case of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. :slight_smile:

Hello Pierre: Yes I agree that the data shown over the many years of kite-reeling has been impressive. Years ago I was becoming convinced it might have legs. Since then I’ve wondered what happened to all those powerful systems - nobody using them? I do not have any further explanation except it is easier to get some brief good data for a wind energy system on a favorable day than it is to develop a reliable wind energy system. The days with favorable wind are not when systems usually show their problems. I’ve taken the claims of high output at face value and never examined the details, and never questioned the numbers. The fact remains that some of these numbers were achieved several years ago, so with all the subsequent promises of systems powering X hundred homes since then, it seems like maybe there may be some problems we don;t know about(?).

I follow AWE from a distance since quite a while, but similar patterns are well-known from other fields. The most extreme case is nuclear fusion, where the “fusion constant” varies between 20 and 40 years, depending whom you ask and how you phrase the question. Now some companies start talking about commercially viable solutions next decade, which strikes me as pretty risky, but at least leaves them enough time to burn lots of VC. About AWE I take some hope from the fact that the lady from SkySails mentioned “next week” on the phone, so I can and will follow up with her if we don’t hear from them by the end of March. But I won’t hold my breath…

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Good idea. Keep breathing. :slight_smile: Typically, the discussion veers off into other topics like “fusion”, “the Wright Bros.”, etc.
Meanwhile, we hope for good news!

Hi Doug: I don’t know if your observation is ironic. Average 92 kW could be the value of 20 m diameter Enercon E-20.

The question is simple: should you choose a wind turbine with a reliable 20 m diameter rotor providing continuous power by conception, or a 500 m tethered AWES (where do you put it?) requiring a flexible wing change when it wears out, and providing an intermittent power?

Hi Pierre:
Considering our facility is powered by a 10 kW system, I’ve been impressed with stated AWE output numbers of almost ten times that. And remember, 10 kW is rated power at full wind, with average output maybe 2-3 kW or so. We have to remember, the wind is not always blowing hard enough to even spin the turbine, let alone make any power.
Responding to Andreas, the difference between AWE output and fusion experiments is the AWE output was achieved relatively quickly (successful output right away, not decades of failure). There is no endless wait for “breakeven” output for an AWE generator, for example, they generate positive power immediately. There are no steep obstacles for AWE to at least work. The question for AWE is, why, with such apparently successful research prototypes, is there never anything running today, no system in regular operation, even if the costs don’t pencil out with the output, with the amount of money spent to develop AWE, why are we still not seeing a system in regular operation?

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Because of a too low Power to space use ratio.

I don’t see how that would stop any developer from getting a system up and running. Sure this would be an answer for why certain high-wind locations of limited area are not full of AWE systems, but for a single installation, there are plenty of places for running an AWE system.

In commercial conditions, it will not be possible to reserve a few km² and km³ for only 100 kW.
AWES are doomed to produce more than traditional wind turbines, in combined two ways: to harness high altitude winds, and to sweep all the occupied space.

What you are talking about is an issue for the future. It would not affect a single preliminary installation. Take the Island of Mauritius for example: They have many square miles of open space, and no windfarms as far as I am aware. Take any ranch or farm: plenty of open space for an AWE system. It is good to look toward the future, but what you are saying is like worrying about global warming when the first operating coal mine or oil well is still in prototype stage. Your thinking on future space and crowding issues for future AWE windfarms is misplaced regarding early single installations and single grid-tie AWE systems for today. It is like lamenting the lack of space in a large arena for a large audience when a prospective speaker is unknown with zero audience. Today the question is whether any system can be in regular operation, not how many imaginary perfect systems we could pack together if we had to at some future date.

There are already single preliminary installations for years. You mentioned it yourself:

I’m starting to think I’m stuck in a tar pit just being on this chat.
If there are AWE systems running on a regular basis, please share the info!