Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Go, Fly a Kite: The Promises (and Perils) of Airborne Wind-Energy Systems *

Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Go, Fly a Kite: The Promises (and Perils) of Airborne Wind-Energy Systems *

Article excerpt


Commercial wind power generation is still, in many ways, an emerging technology. This may sound surprising for a technology that currently generates 4.4% of all energy produced in the United States,1 but the first commercial wind farm in the United States was built only thirty-five years ago-a fraction of the history of oil and gas, not to mention coal.2 These few decades have provided little time to develop the laws, regulations, and judicial decisions that define other sectors of the energy industry. We still lack definitive answers to questions of property rights associated with wind generation3 and its environmental impacts.4 Already, those questions are evolving, and advances in technology may radically alter the landscape. This Note discusses some of the legal issues that may be implicated by the introduction of a new technology: airborne wind energy.

Airborne wind-energy systems (AWES),5 though still in their technological infancy, may one day change the commercial wind-energy sector. Scientists estimate that high-altitude winds contain several times the amount of energy needed to meet current global demand.6 Airborne systems hold the promise of access to that energy. Access to high-altitude wind would be both tremendously valuable and disruptive. As is often the case, though, in the uncertain legal environment that accompanies disruptive technologies, it is unclear just who will benefit from this valuable resource and how.

Like other modern energy sources, high-altitude wind raises a number of novel and complex legal issues. Taking wind power into the skies raises new issues for this developing industry-sometimes simplifying and sometimes complicating existing challenges. If wind energy is to become a pillar of global energy production, these questions must be addressed, and there is no time like the present.

This Note will sketch out a number of the more significant legal issues airborne systems raise and propose some ways to begin thinking about how to address those issues. Part I contains a concise history of major developments in wind energy and a summary of the current landscape of land-based wind turbines. In Part II, I discuss the reasons for attempting to harness high-altitude wind along with some of the designs available from aspiring commercial AWES providers. Part III introduces the legal landscape, compares and contrasts AWES with existing wind installations, and presents legal frameworks that might be adapted to deal with AWES. Finally, in Part IV I recommend some measures for facilitating the development of high-altitude wind farming.

I. Historical Development of Wind Energy

Wind energy is an abundant and versatile resource. The earliest known human application of wind power was for sailing vessels at around 5,000 B.C.E.7 Several millennia later, around 200 B.C.E., the Chinese began converting wind energy into mechanical energy to pump water.8 The Dutch landscape was famously dotted with windmills in the eighteenth century C.E.9 Within a few decades of harnessing electricity, wind energy was tapped for electrical power generation. As early as 1887, a Scottish professor experimented with wind-turbine designs to power his home.10

Less than a century after that early personal experiment, the world's first wind farm was constructed in New Hampshire in 1980. The twenty-turbine farm was tiny by today's standards and a failure by most measures,11 but despite that failure, wind-turbine technology rapidly accelerated over the following decades.12 From 1980 to 2003, the capital cost of wind energy was cut by approximately two-thirds,13 and by the second quarter of 2014, the United States alone had nearly sixty-two gigawatts (GW) of installed wind-energy capacity-enough to power more than 15 million homes.14 Global installed capacity by the end of 2014 was nearly 370 GW,15 with projections of up to 2,000 GW installed by 2030.16 The United States will be contributing more than its fair share of that capacity if it reaches the goal of obtaining 20% of all energy from wind by 2030. …

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