Not far from where Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first airplane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Rob Creighton and his partners at a start-up company called Windlift are testing a contraption designed to capture high-altitude wind energy and turn it into electricity for off-the-grid users.
Potential customers include the U.S. military, chic eco-resorts in remote locations and poor people in the global south in desperate need of power.
Creighton, an 36-year-old MBA who grew up in Minnesota, tests his machines in the Outer Banks for the same reason as the Wright brothers did: There's lots of wind there. His company is one of several -- others include Google-backed Makani Power, Joby Energy and KiteGen -- working in a relatively obscure but promising corner of the renewable energy business. They are deploying different technologies and business strategies, but all are driven by the fact that winds increase in power and consistency as you get higher above the ground. (If you are a scientist or engineer and want to know more, here is a link to a 77-page PDF presentation that includes such topics as "dancing kites"!)
I met Rob last week at a conference on energy and climate organized by the Center for Sustainable Enterprise at the Kenan-Flager business school at the University of North Carolina. Turns out that his obsession with kites goes back to his boyhood, when he enjoyed canoeing in the Boundary Waters; to help speed things up, he'd rig a makeshift kite to his canoe.
His first experiment getting electricity from a kite wasn't much more sophisticated. As an MBA student at the University of Wisconsin, he put together a swing set, rock salt, a hockey stick and an three-meter airfoil and generated mechanical energy, lifting 200 lbs of salt. Don't laugh. Windlift, which is based in Durham, N.C., last year secured a grant of about $1 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to research, develop, test and build prototypes of its Airborne Wind Energy (AWE) system.
"They are really excited about our technology," Creighton says, "because they have a huge problem shipping fuel to remote locations." Using diesel fuel to power military installations requires long, complex and dangerous supply lines. "I like to think that our product could save lives."