Airborne Wind Energy Tech Makes Market Inroads
Norway-based Kitemill recently announced its third acquisition, accelerating efforts to bring its autonomous airborne wind energy technology, a wind turbine alternative, to the market.
Kitemill, a Norwegian startup developing technology to generate renewable energy from autonomous kites and drones, is pursuing an aggressive expansion in the airborne wind energy sector, recently acquiring bespoke aircraft maker Exact Aircraft in its third consolidation move.
Kitemill’s autonomous drone connects to a tether to spin a reel that activates a ground generator to produce electricity. Image used courtesy of Kitemill
The company will absorb Exact Aircraft’s business unit, supplier contracts, equipment, and intellectual property. Now organized as a subsidiary, Exact’s acquisition assists with the supply/assembly of Kitemill’s KM1 kites, expanding its manufacturing capabilities, product range, and supply chain.
This latest acquisition comes after Kitemill took over the assets and intellectual property of Scotland-based Kite Power Systems (KPS) a few years ago. The company leveraged KPS’s experience in developing airborne systems, a ground station, and design resources to support its first demonstration facility in Lista, an area in southern Norway.
It then acquired eKite, a Dutch startup that designed and manufactured kite power systems to generate energy via ultra-light wings at half the cost of conventional wind turbines. Some of eKite’s employees joined Kitemill in 2021, boosting the team’s expertise.
Kitemill CEO Thomas Hårklau called the Exact Aircraft acquisition a significant milestone, supporting its strategic growth plans toward commercialization. The deal comes after Kitemill hired Exact Aircraft’s former owner, model airplane builder Trond Hammerstad, in 2020. With experience delivering over 40 models worldwide, Hammerstad joined Kitemill to assemble a new kite model called “Spark.”
Kitemill’s drones are linked to a reeling tether that reaches generators on the ground. As the drone flies, the kite pulls the tether, and the reel turns, generating electricity at the ground station. Kitemill’s system taps into strong winds at an altitude of nearly 1,000 feet, far beyond the height of onshore and offshore wind turbines.
What Is Airborne Wind Energy?
Airborne wind energy (AWE) systems can capture high-strength winds up to half a mile above the ground. With an increased capacity factor and a significant reduction in material consumption compared to existing wind power systems, the technology is promising for the global transition to renewable energy.
Kitemill claims its system can cut the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) in half, as it uses 90% less material and has a higher energy yield. It has demonstrated automatic operation with a 20-kilowatt (kW) kite flying at a 984-foot altitude. That’s substantially higher than land- and sea-bound wind systems: Utility-scale land-based turbines are generally about 308 feet in hub height (measuring from the ground to the middle of the rotor), according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The average hub height for offshore wind turbines is about 328 feet, though some reach as high as 500 feet.
According to a BVG Associates whitepaper commissioned by Airborne Wind Europe (of which Kitemill is a member), AWE deployment could allow Europe to reach up to twice its energy production, complementary to existing wind projects. This could support the European Commission’s plans to add 480 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity across Europe by 2030, up from 225 GW in 2022, per Wind Europe.
BVG Associates estimated that AWE could be viable on more sites than not for established wind technology. By tapping into a larger wind resource potential at altitudes ranging from 980 to 1,640 feet, AWE offers a higher capacity factor than other wind technologies installed at the same site and with the same nominal capacity.
Though the cost is higher than today’s competition, BVG Associates found that public investments by the early 2030s will bring AWE’s average price lower than incumbent technologies by the mid-2030s. The European Union has already signaled its interest in this field, even funding a portion of Kitemill’s development. The company’s home country of Norway also added AWE to its national energy research and development strategy.
Path to Commercialization
Kitemill reached a major milestone earlier this year, expanding its flight endurance record to cover over 310 miles and achieving its longest uninterrupted flight, clocking 5.5 hours. It has also conducted over 500 test flights with its KM1 pilot system.
This marks a significant step up from the company’s earlier advancements. BVG Associates’ report documented that Kitemill achieved an automatic flight of 5 kilowatts (kW) in 2013, then automatic operation in major phases of 5 kW in 2017 and 20 kW in 2021. Its operational hours exceeded 100 in 2020. And this year, the KM1 pilot system surpassed 500 test flights.
Kitemill is continuing to raise money to bring its prototype to the market. According to its Crowdcube page, the company has raised 262,820 euros ($287,380 USD) from 161 investors as of June 23, 2023. It also secured $6.2 million in funding from the European Union.
Its last crowdfunding campaign, which closed earlier this year, was oversubscribed by $92,379. The company drew the attention of Norwegian utility firm Voss Energi, signing on as the lead investor in its new campaign. Kitemill plans to use the funds to complete its first AWE demonstration park in Norway, where it will deploy up to five 20-kW prototype systems.