Renewable Energy? Go Fly a Kite!

Wind dam may soon harvest renewable energyThough harvesting wind energy with a kite or a sail is ancient technology, it is enjoying something of high-tech renaissance. Examples include the vision of Makani Power to harvest high altitude wind energy and English architectural firm Chetwood Associates’ design to “dam the wind” in a mountain gorge near Lake Ladoga in Northern Russia.

You may recognize the basic shape of a spinnaker sail in the Chetwood design, considered both an efficient means of capturing wind as well as an aesthetically pleasing structure designed to be “much less of a blot on this beautiful and unblemished landscape…” according to Laurie Chetwood, principal architect for the project. Attached to the sail is, of course, a turbine and power conduits to convert and transfer the wind energy.

If the project is approved, the wind dam will measure about 25 meters high by 75 meters wide (82 feet by 246 feet), at a cost of $5 million. Wind dam in concept

This leads me to think of my brother-in-law, a wildlife biologist in the business of assessing the damage to bird populations from wind power installations in Northern and Central California. I invite his comment on this design, as I do the for other biologists and experts in the field. What is the potential consequence of such a large, if elegant, “wind dam”?

Maybe we should all just go fly a kite?

Raise the Sails (and turn off the engines?)

Skysail and the Beluga Group test new wind technology. Photo by Joe PappalardoIn some cases, applications of wind energy harken back to the “good old days” of sailing ships plying the world’s oceans. Well, perhaps we won’t be going back to the days of Captain Cook anytime soon (as in never), but the Beluga Group puts into service this month the first commercial freighter using a parafoil designed by Hamburg-based SkySails to augment conventional motive force (diesel power) and help mitigate the environmental impact of commercial shipping.

The global shipping industry emits more sulphur dioxide than all the cars and trucks in the world and, by some estimates, contributes 50% more greenhouse gases than air traffic.

There is some skepticism with the SkySail system, but if the initial runs of the 460-foot Beluga SkySails prove successful, the technology could reduce fuel consumption by up to 50% and cut greenhouse gas emissions from 10 to 20%. It seems fitting that for her maiden voyage the Beluga SkySails will haul windmills from Esbjerg, Denmark to Houston, Texas.

The goal of SkySails is to equip 1500 ships with the parafoil technology by 2015.

Nor is SkySails the only company working on the concept. Martinez, California-based KiteShip has been developing kite propulsion technology for pleasure yachts since the ‘70’s and is now developing applications for commercial deep-water shipping.

No form of energy production is completely benign. The wind dam and the industrial-strength parafoil will inevitably have rough spots to work out technically, environmentally, and economically, if these particular ideas work out at all in large scale deployment. If not, it is surely the path toward ideas that will, if we keep at it (as we must). 

Innovation is one very important key toward a sustainable future, though I’m not sure that we can simply “innovate” our way to sustainability. It requires social forces as well – a change of general outlook. And one can’t wait for the other. Innovation leads to a change in the perception of possibilities, leading to more innovation, further creating the mindset of sustainability. A truly positive feedback loop.

So, what to say to the next renewable energy skeptic you run across?

Tell ‘em to go fly a kite.


Tom Schueneman writes on environmental issues at and He also publishes,, and He lets off steam as Chastise Man



Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

3 responses

  1. It seems that the ecological damage from this could be immense and difficult to predict. It is not just birds and bats, but insects, air quality, etc. Imagine if insect population increased 15% from the lack of bats and birds…this would damage the entire ecosystem of the future… a degree that we could not predict.
    Also, I would define this as a different kind of pollution: visual pollution.
    What a beautiful canyon to be obstructed by a giant sail. I am disappointed that this could be called “green”.

  2. Yeah, that and the fact that it really looks like a big bird trap to me. I’m looking forward to my brother-in-laws take on that aspect of it.
    Still, I wanted to show what sort of ideas are out there.
    Thanks for the comment.

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