Google-funded startup Makani has already proven that kites have value as an energy source. Now the GE-chartered Beluga SkySails cargo vessel has shown that kites–yes, those lightweight things you fly from strings–can act as propulsion systems on ships.
The vessel, chartered by GE’s Project Logistics team to carry power-generating equipment, boasts the first towing kite propulsion system for a commercial shipping vessel. The parasail-like kite attaches to the ship’s bow and pulls it through the water. The SkySails system can carry a load of eight to 16 tons–a number that is expected to increase to 32 tons by 2012 as the technology matures.
SkySails can’t replace traditional propulsion systems, but GE estimates that the system could cut a ship’s average fuel costs by 10% to 35% each year. And reduced fuel costs lead to reduced emissions, which means that the shipping industry could one day shed its image as a CO2-spewing behemoth.
The SkySails system isn’t quite ready for prime time yet. It’s still in the “exploratory phase,” but don’t be surprised if you see kite-equipped cargo vessels powering through an ocean near you in the next few years.