Google shuts down ‘moonshot’ wind unit once backed by DOE

Source: By Carlos Anchondo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2020

Alphabet Inc. will no longer house a wind company once backed by the Department of Energy under its umbrella, marking the end of a seven-year journey at the Google parent company.

Makani’s “wind kites” technology — which harnesses wind by sending power down a tether from high altitudes — has often been touted as a success story of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy at the Energy Department, which funded it in its early stages. Makani was acquired by Google in 2013 as part of its X lab, informally known as “the moonshot factory.” Makani later became a distinct unit within Alphabet.

Fort Felker, project lead at Makani, announced the development in a blog post this week, noting that Royal Dutch Shell PLC is “exploring options” to continue developing the technology.

“Creating an entirely new kind of wind energy technology means facing business challenges as well as engineering challenges,” Felker said. “Despite strong technical progress, the road to commercialization is longer and riskier than hoped, so from today Makani’s time at Alphabet is coming to an end.”

Felker said Shell’s support of the technology enabled the California-based company to transition its energy kite system offshore. In August, Makani tested its carbon-fiber kite approximately 6 miles off the Norwegian coastline in its first offshore demonstration (Climatewire, Aug. 16, 2019).

Shell could potentially offer a lifeline for the project, which was initially formed in 2006 by a group of kite surfers “curious about the potential for kites to unlock wind energy” worldwide, according to Felker.

Dorine Bosman, Shell’s vice president for offshore wind, said the company believes Makani is still “one of the leading airborne-wind technologies” in the world and is exploring options to continue development under its New Energies strategy.

“Offshore wind has the potential to reach the large-scale generation capacity that society needs to transition to a lower-carbon energy system,” Bosman said in a statement. “The combination of airborne and floating wind offers innovative solutions to some of the challenges faced in scaling up.”

Anna Siefken, executive director of the Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, said companies like Shell should always be diversifying.

“They have any number of ways that they could test this that might be really closely in their lane, very aligned with what they are trying to accomplish,” Siefken said.

Astro Teller, chairman of the Makani board and the CEO of X, said most of the Makani team will “move on to their next adventure,” but that a small team will stay on for a months to pack things up so others might learn from their knowledge in the future.

“While it’s tempting to say that all climate-related ideas deserve investment, remaining clear-eyed and directing resources to the opportunities where we think we can have the greatest impact isn’t just good business; it’s essential when it comes to a problem as urgent as the climate crisis,” Teller said in a statement, adding that he’s “really glad” to see Shell looking at options for Makani’s technology.