HAIFA, Israel (Reuters) - Giant solar energy balloons floating high in the air may be a cheap way to provide electricity to areas lacking the land and infrastructure needed for traditional power systems, researchers in Israel say.
The world is racing to find renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels, and entrepreneurs are scrambling for a slice of a clean energy market that analysts estimate was worth nearly $150 billion last year.
Edison International's Southern California Edison utility has announced plans to build the largest photovoltaic solar system in the United States at 250 megawatts, enough for 162,000 homes.
With many of the earth's sunniest spots falling in the middle of the ocean or desert, the balloons, designed by a team from the Technion Institute of Technology, could be used to harness the sun's energy in those remote areas.
However, the application may turn out to have strictly niche appeal given the vast area available in remote locations to park solar panels on rooftops in cities, and on cheap scrub land.
"The idea is to take advantage of the height dimension. When you do that, you save a lot of land resources and can get to places otherwise hard to reach," said Pini Gurfil, the concept's developer.
The helium-filled balloons, covered with thin solar panels, hover as high as a few hundred meters in the air, and are connected via a wire cable to an inverter, which converts the electricity into a form households can use.
It will be about a year before the system is ready, Gurfil said. But initial research, both computerized and using a crude prototype, showed a balloon with a three meter (10 ft) diameter could provide about one kilowatt of energy, the same as 25 square meters (269 square feet) of traditional solar panels.
That's about enough energy for an average person to operate a washing machine and drier. While 25 square meters of traditional solar panels may cost about $10,000, the target cost of the balloon is less than $4,000, with most of the savings coming from the minimal structural support needed, Gurfil said.
"The balloons have no carbon footprint or negative impact on the environment," Gurfil said. "Helium is a naturally occurring gas and environment-friendly. The system saves land from being occupied as well as resources like glass and metal used in ground-based solar energy systems."
However, solar power installers believe the idea may have limited application, given available space on roofs and scrub land, and that the biggest single cost is not land but the solar panel, where much research is focused.
"There's 'free land' on the roofs of buildings, there's space enough for gigawatts of electricity even in cloudy Britain," said Jeremy Leggett, chairman of UK-based solar installation company Solar Century.
"There's plenty of low-value land that can be used for solar farms in the (Mediterranean) sun belt."
John Loughhead, executive director at the UK Energy Research Centre, said there was no reason the solar balloon system could not work, but it would be practical only in a few specific circumstances.
"I can see that there could be advantages if the ground is already being used for another purpose ... or if there were no land and the balloon was tethered to a ship at sea," Loughhead said.
The balloons, made from durable material used in meteorological balloons, are filled with helium and insulated on the inside by silicon to reduce leaks. They can stay afloat for up to a year before needing to be reinflated, Gurfil said.
They are lined with solar panels, about 0.2 mm (0.008 inches) thick, and a three-meter balloon weighs about 2.5 kg (5.5 lb).
While land-based solar panels, usually pointing only in one direction, are affected by the sun's position in the sky and can be obscured by taller structures, the balloons' circular shape ensures they always receive direct sunlight, Gurfil said.
"Mostly it's meant to be an auxiliary system, not a main power system," Gurfil said.
Since the balloons are easy to transport, require little infrastructure and can be inflated on site, the system could be used for emergency power in regions blacked out by natural disasters, he added.
Joseph Cory, the research team's architect, said the final balloons will have an aerodynamic design to cancel out the wind effect and maximize sunlight. The largest balloons could be the size of zeppelins, he said.
"The vision is that we can make as many balloons as we want in a special way, like the leaves of a flower that do not shade each other," Cory said.
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Additional reporting by Gerard Wynn; Editing by Sara Ledwith