Australian Solar

Australian National University set Solar Efficiency Record

Australian National University set Solar Efficiency Record

Australia could be a world leader in solar power. The entrenched interests of the powerful coal lobby have been a barrier preventing the government getting fully behind the conversion to a solar powered economy. However the tide is turning in favour of solar power as technical innovation progresses, prices come down and popular support grows. Today I want to write about two solar stories from Australia.

Tyalgum is small community of just 300 residents in the beautiful hilly county along the border between New South Wales and Queensland. They are proposing to disconnect themselves from the electricity grid and supply all their energy needs from ordinary rooftop photovoltaic (pv) solar panels with batteries in all the buildings to store electricity in the most distributed way possible. For relatively isolated small communities at the end of the electricity grid this makes perfect sense. Once Tyalgum achieve this many other similar communities are likely to follow them.

Meanwhile scientists at the Australian National University at Canberra have just announced 97% conversion efficiency for turning sunlight into steam. They use a huge 500 square metre parabolic mirrored dish to concentrate the sun’s energy onto a small central receiver. Water pumped through this receiver is heated to 500 degrees Celsius by the power of 2,100 Suns, creating steam to drive turbines and so make electricity, or to be stored in molten salt to generate electricity after the sun has set. Australia has long been good at research into concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) but unfortunately has never had the government vision and support to achieve large scale commercial deployment, so consequently Australia lags a long way behind Morocco, Chile, South Africa or the USA in terms of deployment of CSP. However as costs continue to fall, spurred on by innovation and increases in efficiency, the economics of concentrating solar power relative to coal continue to improve.

It makes sense for cities to be linked into power grids, but for isolated communities cutting themselves off from the grid makes increasingly good economic sense. Solar power could supply all of Australia’s power needs and both pv and CSP have a role to play. Australia now has a new government and it is high time they put the conversion to a solar powered economy as a top priority: there would be many benefits, including cheaper electricity and reduced carbon emissions.


Airlander 10 on maiden voyage over Bedfordshire

Airlander 10 on maiden voyage over Bedfordshire

A few weeks ago I blogged about Solar Impulse and speculated about the possibility of radically more sustainable air flight based on lighter than air airships. Little did I realise at the time that such craft were actually being developed and were pretty much ready to go. A few days ago the Airlander 10 took its maiden voyage over a field in Bedfordshire. This Airlander 10 is very impressive. It is huge: 92 m long and 43.5 m wide, a vast helium balloon encased in high-tech Vectran material. It is has been designed and built by Hybrid Air Vehicles and is a true hybrid, its lighter than air main body is like an Airship, its aerodynamic body and small fixed wings are more like an airplane and its multidirectional engines give it much of the functionality of a helicopter. It can land anywhere, on water, in fields, in deserts or on ice-sheets. This will give it tremendous advantages in delivering goods or people to remote locations, and also opens the possibility for smaller quieter city airports. It can travel at up to 100 mph and stay airborne for weeks at a time. The Airlander 10 comes with a £25 m price-tag, very much cheaper than an Airbus A380 at £287m. They expect to have one hundred of these craft operating within 5 years. The Airlander 10 can carry a payload of 10 tonnes, and plans are afoot to build an Airlander 50 to carry 50 tonnes, with much larger future possibilities, of anything up to 1000 tonne versions.

The Airlander already creates less environmental damage than other planes, but this might well be further improved by incorporating solar cells and batteries as pioneered by Solar Impulse. I wonder whether the two teams have been in touch, it might be of great mutual benefit. Together they hint towards a future with very much more sustainable air travel. Bring it on!

Carbon Capture & Utilization

Professor Charlotte Williams, founder of Econic Technologies

Professor Charlotte Williams, founder of Econic Technologies

Climate change dictates that we need to reduce carbon emissions to net zero or even to net negative emissions as fast as possible. There has been much talk of carbon capture and storage. However just pumping carbon dioxide into old oil and gas wells seems both a waste of a potentially valuable resource and a rather insecure method of storage. I’ve long argued that carbon capture and utilization was a much better path to explore. There are many methods of doing this, from very well known and old to the most innovative high tech fields of research.

Photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Using high quality timbers like oak and teak in construction locks this carbon up in the fabric of a building, potentially for many centuries. Algae grow rapidly and are potentially the basis of a whole range of sustainable renewable energy and chemical industries. In 2009 Scottish Bioenergy built a very interesting algal bioreactor at the Glenturret Whiskey Distillery in Crieff, turning industrial waste into energy and a range of useful products, including high protein fish food. Using photosynthesis to capture carbon in timber, algae and other useful plant materials has a powerful positive role to play in carbon sequestration and in modern industrial innovation.

Carbon can also be directly captured from the atmosphere, or from flue gases, and used in a whole range of other useful products, from cement to plastics. A few years ago I got very excited at the prospect of carbon negative cements, which have great potential but which unfortunately cannot yet compete on price with ordinary Portland cement. Currently there is a lot of interest in making the plastics industry more sustainable. One of my favourite examples of this is Econic Technologies.

Econic Technologies is an amazing UK start-up. It was founded in 2011 by Professor Charlotte Williams to use carbon dioxide as a feedstock in the production of polymers. These are used in an extraordinarily wide range of products from trainers to mattresses, coatings and adhesives to appliances and in construction. The process they use will help reduce the energy use and ecological footprint of this whole range of industrial products. Econic Technologies, like MeshPower that I blogged about last week, was started by people from Imperial Collage in London. They have now grown due to investment from Imperial Innovations, Jetstream Capital, Norner and most recently Woodford Investment Management. This has allowed them to hire more staff and to open a new Application Development site at Alderley Park in Cheshire. This small start up seems to be growing well, and the technologies they have developed may have a huge role in helping reduce the pollution caused by the global chemical industry. I wish them every success.

MeshPower Nanogrids

Mesh Power

MeshPower brings electricity to another family in rural Rwanda

About 1.2 billion people, or 17% of the world’s population, don’t have access to electricity. Most of them live in rural parts of Africa and southern Asia. One of the UN Sustainable Development goals is that everyone should have access to electricity. Once communities have electricity literacy rates tend to increase, new businesses spring up and gradually people become a little better off so other aspects of poverty can be more easily remedied. Solar panels, batteries and a range of other Cleantech innovations are bringing electricity to these people in new ways that are less polluting and cheaper than traditional power stations and electricity grids.

One excellent example of this process is MeshPower, a small UK company started in 2012 by students from Imperial Collage in London. MeshPower connect whole communities, rather than just single properties, to their bespoke nanogrids, and they sell electricity rather than solar panels, batteries or other expensive equipment, so members of the community can just pay for exactly the amount of electricity they use. MeshPower use solar panels connected to a single battery base-station, located in the centre of a village and with a nanogrid system of cables connecting about 50 to 100 houses, usually within a 200 metre radius, to this battery. A low voltage DC system is used with USB ports instead of normal plugs and sockets. This is very much safer and also extremely energy efficient and perfect for LED lighting and mobile phone chargers, but also suitable for televisions and many other devices. Each nanogrid, and each household’s energy use, can be monitored remotely via the internet, so problems can be rapidly fixed and the whole system tweaked to improve performance.

MeshPower have their headquarters in the Imperial Collage Incubator in London and are working with communities in Bugesera District in southern Rwanda. In June 2016 they connected their 1,000th customer, and by the end of 2016 are planning to have 10,000 customers connected. Currently they employ 25 people in Rwanda, but envisage this figure to have grown to 40 in a few months. In 2014 I blogged about Solar Aid, an excellent charity come business that has now sold its one millionth solar powered light in Africa. I think MeshPower may have an even better solution than Solar Aid, and together they show that dirty old kerosene lamps will soon be consigned to history. Here is yet another aspect of the transition out of ‘The Fossil-Fuel Age’ and into ‘The Solar Age’.

Brexit, Food & Farming


The Fold, a lovely organic market garden and care farm. Good for people and for wildlife, yet will it benefit from Brexit?

For more than four decades UK food and farming policies and practices have been hugely influenced by policies and funding stemming from the European Union. The whole Brexit process will be slow to implement and could further damage rural Britain as many good schemes come to an end. However Brexit provides a massive opportunity to create new policies and practices. A group of 88 organisations have written to David Davis, the Secretary of State overseeing Brexit, and to Theresa May. The letter stresses that many positive outcomes, in terms of public health, wellbeing, rural employment, biodiversity and global poverty can all be achieved with the right policies. I hope this government listens to this group and recognises their collective wisdom.

The number of farms has been declining in Britain for many decades. The EU Area-based payment system, as interpreted by the British government, has intensified this trend. Big, already wealthy farmers, mainly farming in ways that are not ecologically sustainable have received huge subsidies. Many of the most innovative, socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable farming systems are being pioneered on tiny land holdings that have been below the radar of these payment systems. I hope that these smaller scale projects get more support in future. The Landworkers’ Alliance, one of the 88 organisations behind the letter to David Davis, makes the case on their website.

Last week Colette and I went to visit The Fold, a small organic market garden and care farm selling a great variety of vegetables directly to the public through a few local shops and markets. It is typical of the farms that enhance biodiversity, sustainability and social inclusion yet have found grant assistance difficult to obtain, and which would stand to benefit if David Davis and Theresa May listen to the organisations behind that letter.

Solar Impulse & Air Travel

Solar Impulse

Today Solar Impulse completes historic round the World trip. Seen here flying over the PS10 solar power station, Seville. Two symbols of ‘The Solar Age’

I’ve been blogging for six and a half years and have posted 210 blogs and not one of them has focused on air transport. For decades environmentalists have opposed airport expansion, and a few committed individuals vowed never to fly again. However the numbers of people flying continues to rise. Globally many people can afford to travel who previously could not, and many businesses require international travel. International air transport is not about to end any time soon. Air travel represents one of the fastest growing sources of carbon emissions. Current aircraft technology is highly polluting. Slight gains in efficiency are more than offset by increased numbers of people flying, so pollution from aircraft continues to get worse.

Many MPs, led by Grant Shapps, are lobbying for an immediate decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. Other airports want to expand. However with existing technology this will only make pollution worse.

Meanwhile this week two eccentric round the world flights have taken place. The Russian balloonist Fyodor Konyukhov has just knocked two days off the fastest round the world balloon record with a hybrid helium and hot air balloon. Solar Impulse has just landed in Abu Dhabi, so completing the first round the world flight using just photovoltaic power from the sun. The question is do these two achievements have anything to contribute to the mainstream development of aviation? I think they have, given the right market encouragement. So taxing polluting aircraft fuels would help, not building new infrastructure for this current polluting technology and putting more money into less polluting alternatives would all be steps in the right direction.

Bertrand Piccard, one of the two pilots and entrepreneurs behind the Solar Impulse has said “I make the bet that in 10 years we will have electric aeroplanes flying with 50 passengers for short to medium-haul flights”. That for me is one of the most encouraging statements about the future of air travel I’ve ever heard.

Might we also see lighter than air, zeppelin type craft being developed which may include helium for lift and photovoltaic cells for power? Such aircraft would be virtually free of carbon emissions, particulates or noise pollution, and might be able to land on very much smaller inner city airports. Perhaps air travel may yet become ecologically sustainable, but it has a long way to go and needs the support of governments to achieve this important objective. Today thanks go to Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, and to Fyodor Konyukhov, for helping us think differently about the possibilities of flight.

Brexit & this Disunited Kingdom

Theresa May & Nicola Sturgeon outside Bute house, Edinburgh

Theresa May & Nicola Sturgeon outside Bute house, Edinburgh

Theresa May, the new British prime minister, voted Remain but has to deal with the chaos unleashed by Brexit. She is regarded as a ‘safe pair of hands’, so compared with some of the zealots and ego-maniacs we might have ended up with that is to be welcomed. Her first speech from the steps of Downing Street was impressive for its egalitarian tone. However she seems to be following outdated policies which are liable to lead to the fragmentation of the United Kingdom, which is one of the key outcomes she wants to avoid. One of her first acts as prime minister was to go to Edinburgh to have talks with the passionately pro-European SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon. Europe will remain a difficult issue in UK politics for many years, or decades, to come.

Then last night the British Parliament voted by 472 to 117 to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system, at an estimated cost of £31 billion. The Tories supported renewal, Labour was split and the Scottish Nationalist firmly against. The SNP want the Faslane base on the Clyde closed. It is yet another issue where Scotland and the English dominated UK government are on divergent paths. It seems to me a lot of money to spend on a weapons system designed for a World that no longer exists, and I wonder where in England, Wales or Northern Ireland would want to house these weapons, so making themselves an obvious first target in any war.

This new cabinet seems committed to building Hinkley C nuclear power station at a cost that seems to be projected at being between £24 and £37 billion. Again, an outdated and over priced investment, given the falling costs and speed of innovation in the wind, solar, energy storage and energy transmission technologies. Meanwhile Scotland has a policy of building no new nuclear power stations.

The Scottish Parliament has voted for an outright ban on fracking, while the UK Parliament is pushing forward with this most polluting of energy sources. On social and welfare policies, health, education and just about any policy one can think of Scotland is on a divergent path from the UK government. The United Kingdom is looking increasingly disunited.

On each of these policy areas the Scottish policies seem preferable to those of the UK. Any chance of my hometown of Hereford being ruled from Scotland, or Wales come to that, either would be preferable to the current government of this still just about ‘United Kingdom’, and their portfolio of poor policies.

Cooperation or Conflict

Territorial conflict in the South China Sea

Territorial conflict in the South China Sea

This week the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China’s territorial claims to most of the South China Sea have no legal foundation. The Chinese government has rejected the court’s ruling and seems set on continuing to build military and civilian infrastructure on numerous reefs and sandbanks scattered across the South China Sea. This is bringing them into territorial disputes with several countries and heightening geopolitical tensions. (BBC coverage) (Grenatec’s suggested solution)

Over the decades following the Second World War we Europeans built the European Union as a practical project to replace conflict with cooperation. Stewart Taggart and the Grenatec organisation are proposing something similar for the East Asian region, linking all the countries from China and Japan in the north through all of South East Asia down to Australia. The idea would be to link the whole region together with a network of shared infrastructure, especially focusing on gas pipelines, electricity grids and fibre optic cables. This would help create a transformation from territorial disputes and conflict to trade negotiations and cooperation, collaboratively building shared infrastructure suitable for the twenty-first century. The renewable energy potential of this vast region is more than enough to supply its two billion inhabitants, and there would be multiple benefits from greater integration, as Stewart Taggart explains in this video. My blog last week about greater energy integration for countries bordering the North Sea also stressed similar benefits. Gradually an internet of energy is becoming a global reality. In the chaos of post Brexit Britain such cooperative technological opportunities are likely to fall on deaf ears. Eventually we, like the Chinese, will have to learn that international cooperation is preferable to endless conflict. In this the centenary year of the Somme it is a particularly poignant lesson to learn.

Offshore wind and …

Tennet's idea for an artificial island to support offshore wind farms and act as a hub for the European power grid

Tennet’s idea for an artificial island to support offshore wind farms and act as a hub for the European power grid

A couple of weeks ago, in a blog about wind power, I said “Costs continue to fall and are projected to continue falling.” This week the contract to build the first two stages of the massive Borssele wind farm, situated 22 kilometres off the coast of southern Holland, has just been signed. 38 companies and consortiums put in bids and Dong won the bidding process with a bid of 72.70 Euros per MWh. This price is considerably lower than any previous offshore wind farm. This low price has in part been achieved by the Dutch grid operator Tennet paying for the grid connection, but even if these costs are included it brings the cost to just 87 Euros per MWh. This is very competitive with most forms of electricity generation. We will see a lot more wind farms in the North Sea over the coming decade or so, as costs continue to fall.

The Dutch grid operator Tennet is proposing that Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK cooperate to build an artificial island on the Dogger Bank in the North Sea to act as a hub and spoke centre for offshore wind. There would be cost savings in terms of integrating the various countries electricity grids, so power generated in any one country could be exported to any other country, from wherever supply was greatest to wherever demand was greatest. This seems a great idea to me and could be further improved with the addition of a massive tidal lagoon and pumped storage hydro system being incorporated into this artificial island. The Danish architects Gottlieb Paludan proposed such a system back in 2009. I thought it was brilliant at the time and raved about it in a few talks, but didn’t blog about it, and none of their proposed ‘Green Power Islands’ were actually built, so far as I can tell. Now, with the falling costs of offshore wind, the time may be right to merge these ideas of Gottlieb Paludan and Tennet and build something really useful. I can see many possible benefits to such a system, economically, ecologically and politically. This is a longer term project, and hopefully by the time it is built the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon will be up and running and demonstrating the benefits of tidal power. For the Dogger Bank idea the bunds (large sea walls) could be raised to include a pumped storage element, meaning it would act as an energy transmission hub, energy generation facility and as an energy storage system. Pretty neat! Will anyone ever build it? Post Brexit Britain feels like the wrong place to be advocating collaboration. It may get built by others, or we might yet see the advantages of such collaborative projects.

Blundering into Brexit

Brexit: Baffling blunders and beligerance

Brexit: Baffling blunders and belligerence

It’s now nearly a week since the Brexit vote. What the ramifications of this will be is still very unclear. Unintended consequences might be the predominant trend. Very few UKIP supporters and Leave voters want Scottish independence, but they have certainly made that a very much greater probability. Most Leave voters are not thugs and racists, but they have certainly emboldened those who are, greatly endangering peace and stability within our communities and across our continent, possibly for many decades to come. Whether this Brexit vote will trigger a general election, who will lead the Tory and the Labour parties and how quickly Britain will actually leave the EU, if indeed it actually does, all this is still being fought over.

I have been a strong supporter of the EU for decades. I see myself as European. I’ve lived and worked in various parts of the continent. The EU has been perhaps the greatest peacemaking organisation in the history of humanity. My father, grandfather and many relatives fought in European wars and expected me and my generation to have to do so to. We did not have to. The last 70 years has been the most peaceful period possibly in the entire history of the continent, in no small part due to the actions of those who built the EU. The EU has also led the world in environmental legislation, human rights and much else.

The EU certainly has its downside. The system of unelected commissioners was a deep democratic flaw. Some of its rules and regulations were pretty potty, or unnecessarily bureaucratic. However the UK has its own democratic deficit and bureaucratic muddle, entirely of its own making. I see no greater chance of improvement outside the EU than within.

Most Greens and activists for social justice campaigned to Remain in the EU, although a significant minority chose to campaign to Leave. Now Greens and social progressives are regrouping, trying to envisage where the potential to seize a better future lies in this new situation. How best to counter the undoubtedly strengthened forces of intolerance, xenophobia and racism that have been unleashed… How best to secure the socially just and ecologically sustainable future we see as so vital to all of our survival…

It feels like tectonic plates of UK politics might be about to change in complex ways, much of which is distinctly scary, but there are also positive themes. Many groups are calling for a progressive alliance, one aspect of which is an open letter from leaders of the Green Party to leaders of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. Interesting times!