Makani Energy Lost Its Green

Richard Bangert
Makani Energy tested this kite at Alameda Point in October 2015. The company closed its doors when it lost its green-dollars funding from Google.

Makani Energy Lost Its Green

Google’s parent company Alphabet is no longer funding Makani Energy, the developer of the flying kite that produces energy. The announcement from Alphabet came in February 2020. Soon thereafter, an auction sign appeared at the entrance to the hangar it was leasing at the corner of West Tower Avenue and Monarch Street at Alameda Point.

“Makani’s exit from Alphabet may have been hastened by the mixed results in test flights off the coast of Norway in September last year,” wrote Jason Deign in Green Tech Media on May 22, 2020, (“Airborne Wind Players Still Hoping for Takeoff After Alphabet Ditches Makani”). “In the second flight, the 600-kilowatt Makani generator was unable to make it back onto its offshore launch platform and crashed into the sea.”

“The accident underscored a feature of Makani’s technology that has led experts to question why [Makani founders] Brin and Page had so much faith in the concept,” stated Deign. “Out of all the possible ways to make an airborne wind engine, Makani’s was perhaps among the most complicated.”

Makani tested its first prototype at Alameda Point on the former airfield. For a few years, it had a test facility on the parking lot near the USS Hornet Museum where its winged energy kite could be seen undergoing tests.

The concept is that the lightweight carbon fiber airplane would be docked at a tower, and when wind picked up, the airplane, called an energy kite, would launch itself into the air with electrically powered motors. When it reached the end of its tether, it would start to rotate in the wind. At that point, its motors would become generators as the wind turned the propellers. Power would be sent back to the grid. When the wind died down, it would land itself back at the docking tower.

Besides the complicated engineering, there was also the issue of where these energy kites could be deployed. The ideal locations are where there is a reliable and strong supply of wind, such as Hawaii, where the trade winds blow. There are a limited number of sites from which to catch the trade winds. Deploying them over agricultural land, the way wind turbines are deployed, was not really an option due to safety concerns if the tether broke while the kite was flying.
Another challenge is the potential impact of the flying kites on birds. It was never adequately answered.

“While the Makani device will be better than fossil fuel generation for wildlife, the reality is that they require a thin, invisible cable to be flying from ground level to 350 meters (1000 feet) for the onshore model or 650 meters (2000 feet) for the offshore product.

That cable will be flying through a cone at a speed of around 130-140 kph near the wing, and slowing as it nears the ground,” wrote Michael Barnard on the Clean Technica website on February 19, 2014 (“Google’s Makani: From Regulatory to Technical to Wildlife Challenges.”) “This is likely to be much more difficult to perceive and avoid than any wind turbine blade for birds.”

Since being dropped by Google’s parent Alphabet, Makani has partnered with Shell in an effort to commercialize offshore deployment of its energy kite. One thing Makani won’t have to worry about with the offshore deployment is killing birds. A dead bird out on the ocean won’t be around long enough for anyone to find, unlike the raptors killed by land-based wind turbines.

Based on a sign at the former Monarch Street entrance to Makani, Google is apparently still searching for a way to make money at the hangar. The sign directs visitors to another part of the hangar.

Richard Bangert posts stories and photos about Alameda Point environmental issues on his blog Alameda Point Environmental Report