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Crazy blimp may soon power remote villages

The Airborne Wind Turbine produces enough electricity to power a remote village.Altaeros Energies

A helium-filled, doughnut-shaped blimp with a wind turbine for its filling may soon be the go-to power source for remote villages and industrial operations.

“Definitely one of our use cases is providing a consistent, reliable source of power in remote communities and island nations,” Ben Glass, who invented the turbine at MIT, told me on Thursday. Glass is now chief executive of Altaeros Energies, a spinoff company he founded to commercialize the technology.

The blimp-like contraption can produce about 100 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power around 40 average homes in the United States. In remote areas already accustomed to a limited power supply, there should be even more bang for the kilowatt, Glass noted.

While the output of the Airborne Wind Turbine is significantly less than the industrial-scale 1.5-megawatt wind turbines you see popping up like weeds in the windy sections of the country, they begin to make financial sense in remote, off-grid locations.

In such places — think an island in the Pacific Ocean or a mining company setting up shop in the increasingly ice-free Arctic — the logistical challenges of installing a traditional steel tower wind turbine is cost prohibitive. Instead, these remote outposts tend to rely on diesel-fueled generators.

“With our system, the entire turbine is an inflatable structure so we can pack that down into a very small volume, send that anywhere in the world and very quickly deploy it — within a day,” Glass said. “We don’t need to have a large crane; we don’t need to set a large underground foundation.”

What’s more, the turbine up is designed to function about 1,000 feet off the ground, where the winds are more powerful and more consistent than they are closer to the ground. “That allows us to produce two to five times as much energy out of a single unit than you could out of an equivalent-rated traditional turbine,” Glass noted.

The company recently released this video, showing the successful test of its prototype turbine conducted this winter in Maine:

Once installed, the energy is essentially free — it's just wind. Measure that against the cost of constantly importing diesel fuel to power a generator, which can run upwards of 10 times as much as it does in the big city, and you see the advantage.

While final figures are unavailable, Glass said the blimp-like turbine should produce energy at about $0.18 to $0.20 per kilowatt (including the up-front cost of the system itself) versus $0.45 or higher for a diesel generator.

Before the turbines ship to customers, the company needs to optimize the performance and do some engineering work to make them more durable, Glass said.

When the turbines are ready, he envisions the system being retrofitted onto existing diesel-powered grids and “displacing some of the fuel consumption” or incorporating it with an energy storage system “to provide a fully reliable power source.”

--Hat tip to Popular Science

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.