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Tapping The Jet Stream: A New Energy Source?

Could jet streams be a new energy source to power the world's electricity? Find out on this Moment of Science.

Wind turbine farm in the evening

Photo: TDR1 (flickr)

Scientists are trying to figure out a way to use wind turbines like these in England to harvest the power of jet streams high up in Earth's atmosphere

In 2008, wind turbines generated one percent of the world’s electricity. But just imagine what could happen if we could harness the wind in jet streams–strong winds 30,000 feet up in the atmosphere focused in narrow bands circling the world.

Powering The World… With Kites?

Scientists think that jet streams harbor enough energy to power the world many times over. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to capture all that windy power. Which is where kites come in. Not just any kites, mind you.

We’re talking about flying wind turbines, like the kind on the ground with propellers spun by wind, but much lighter. The flying turbines would harness high altitude winds and transmit energy in the form of electricity through a tether attached to the ground.

That’s one possible scheme, anyhow. Whether it’s doable remains to be seen. But scientists do know that there are jet streams above massive populations centers like New York City, Tokyo, and Mexico City. That’s important because energy demand is highest where people live close together.

Down To Earth

Scientists think that with the right technology, jet streams could provide more than enough power for all of the world’s largest cities.

One problem, though, is that however powerful, even jet streams slow down and speed up. So any jet stream power system would need a way to store excess energy and have a backup system in place.

Still, high altitude winds are intriguing as a source of clean, renewable power. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to bring their abundant energy down to Earth.

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  • Freakonomics101

    This idea is a fruitless pipe dream! What is going to hold these kite turbines aloft when the wind dies down or shifts? Also, there is quite a bit of resistance in a wire 30,000 feet long so losses will be exponential. The voltages would need to be so high to mitigate the resistance losses these 6 mile long tethers would be like industrial size bug zappers and a serious hazard for aircraft! Ground based turbines and solar combined with switching to an ammonia based fuel is the only answer. Ammonia has 4 times more energy per liter then gasoline and can be made from air and water right at the source of the renewable energy and there is no CO2 produced at all! Ammonia is simple to safely control and the distribution infrastructure is already in place for agricultural use. The only reason it is not in use already is that the multi trillion dollar filthy oil and coal industry titans will fight to the death of the planet to maintain the stranglehold they have on global energy!

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