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JoeBen Bevirt and his team test a prototype of a flying wind turbine on the cliffs north of Santa Cruz.
Bonny Doon is hardly the place one thinks of visiting for high-tech thrills. Once an old logging camp, the tiny hamlet northwest of Santa Cruz, California, sits at the end of a country road, past miles of empty beaches and strawberry farms. Hang a left before you reach the vineyard and you find a short dirt track leading to a barn. And then, amid hundreds of acres of redwoods out back, you encounter an avatar of the future—a whirring black gizmo, about the size of a bread box, zipping around overhead. The strange flying object is controlled remotely by a cluster of giggling engineers. Their leader, a tall man with the build of a gazelle, windswept blond hair, and a permanent grin, starts extolling the possibilities of his device before he remembers to introduce himself.
To inventor JoeBen Bevirt, the flying black box holds our clean-energy future, a world in which wind turbines lift off the ground and fly among the clouds. His company, Joby Energy, designs these turbines from scratch. "In order to have truly sustainable energy, we've got to beat coal," he says. "We are going to need game-changing technology. I believe that technology is high-altitude wind."
In concept his idea makes sense: Wind power from the sky would strip turbines of their expensive, heavy towers and oversize blades, allowing them to collect energy unobtrusively from the richest lode of wind in the world. Winds at an altitude of 30,000 feet carry 20 times as much energy as those near the ground, representing a source of power that could be a fraction of the cost of coal. The challenge, observers say, is keeping such turbines aloft.
"Finding a resource so large is like finding an oil field in your garden," says Cristina Archer, an environmental engineer at the University of California, Chico, and lead author of a global survey on high-altitude winds. "Plus, you're saving on material costs by using 100-pound devices floating on air rather than 200 tons of cement for a traditional wind turbine."
Friends of JoeBen Bevirt say that within 15 minutes of meeting the man, you either love him or hate him. His focused energy, coupled with unusually wide, unblinking blue eyes, can be unnerving. He is friendly but talks at a brisk clip, punching out rapid-fire syllables without breaking eye contact. When seated, he twitches a leg. "You would think he'd had five cups of coffee," says David Craig, one of Joby Energy's earliest employees. "He's pretty intense. But the enthusiasm is contagious"...
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